House of Commons
Tuesday 19 March 2019
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Business before Questions
Answers to Addresses
The Vice-Chamberlain of the Household reported to the House a message from the Queen in reply to loyal and dutiful addresses from this House.
I have received your address about His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales on the occasion of his 70th birthday. It gives me great pleasure to convey to the Prince of Wales the loyal and affectionate sentiments you express.
I have received your Humble Address praying that I should appoint Gareth Davies to the Office of Comptroller and Auditor General. I will comply with your request.
I would like to make a statement about security and access to the parliamentary estate. It is likely that there will be a strike of parliamentary security staff this Wednesday 20 March. Industrial action is due to begin this evening, Tuesday 19 March, and to conclude on the morning of Thursday 21 March. During this time, access to the parliamentary estate for non-passholders will be extremely limited.
Parliament’s priority will be to ensure that the business of both Houses is unaffected. Priority access will be provided to Select Committee witnesses of both Houses and civil servants who are supporting business in both Chambers.
All security staff are highly valued and an essential part of the parliamentary community. Parliamentary authorities are continuing to engage constructively with the union over the issues that were on the ballot and hope to avoid the strike taking place. Should this action take place, I would like to reassure Members that security will in no way be compromised. Security is everyone’s responsibility. I should remind colleagues that it is imperative that we all wear our security passes at all time when on the parliamentary estate. Anyone failing to display a security pass is liable to challenge and may be required to obtain a day pass.
Oral Answers to Questions
Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy
The Secretary of State was asked—
The best way to support people is to make sure that they have a job. Today it was announced that more people are employed in our country than ever before. Unemployment has fallen to 3.9%, its lowest since 1975. Our pay rose in real terms over the past year by 1.3%, and over the past year 96% of those new jobs have been full time.
Too often, workers have eight or 10-hour contracts, but are then expected to work up to 60 hours when their employer demands it, with no flexibility in return. One concrete step that the Government could take to protect these insecure workers is to ensure that contracts reflect the hours that people normally work. Will the Minister commit to legislating for this?
I am slightly surprised to hear that from the hon. Lady because she knows that we have taken measures to give workers the right to request that stable contract. She will know that in her own area Bradford Council is a very good exponent of that. It was advertising last night for casual commis chefs, saying that hours are offered on a “casual basis” and may be withdrawn by either party, giving a minimum of two hours’ notice. If she wants those rights to be extended, I suggest that she talk to Bradford Council first.
Can the Business Secretary confirm that there are more people in our nation in secure employment than ever before in our history and that the number of people on zero- hours contracts has fallen by 100,000 in the past year alone?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Obviously, it is a great source of confidence to people that they can obtain a job. It is the case that employers across the country value the flexibility that having a flexible workforce gives. In fact, again, the Labour leader of Gateshead Council said that
“many zero-hours contracts employees”
on the council
“don’t want to be full time employees and prefer to consider themselves as self-employed”,
so this is a practice that is pursued right across the country.
Some 1.6 million workers are paid exactly the national living wage of £7.83 an hour, and a further 3 million people are paid within 50 pence of it. In the spring statement last week, the Chancellor said that the ultimate objective of this Government was
“ending low pay in the UK”—[Official Report, 13 March 2019; Vol. 656, c. 349.]
The usual definition of a national living wage is 66% of median earnings, but the remit of the Low Pay Commission is only to get to 60%. Are the Government now committing to end low pay? If so, when?
The hon. Lady should recognise the commitment to 60% and the progress that has been made towards that, which meant a very big pay increase for many of the lowest paid workers in the country. She will remember that the Chancellor announced a review in his statement last week to look into where we go beyond that, using international best practice to inform such a decision. I hope that the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee, which the hon. Lady chairs, will want to contribute to that review.
Matthew Taylor’s recent review of modern working practices indicated that a blanket ban on zero-hours contracts would create more cliff edges for employers and workers. Does my right hon. Friend agree with that analysis?
I do agree with that analysis and with what my hon. Friend has said. The conclusion of the panel in that completely independent report was:
“To ban zero hours contracts…would negatively impact many more people than it helped.”
It is right to ensure that there is an ability to request a stable contract and that people are not banned from working for different employers, but to remove these contracts all together would be against the practice of many employers, including councils.
I share the hon. Gentleman’s concerns. In the last few weeks, I have been discussing with the trade unions how any loopholes that might be being exploited should be closed. It is the intention of everyone across the House that the law should be obeyed and that workers should be paid a fair rate for their work.
Does the Secretary of State agree that it is often the UK, not the EU, that has led the way on workers’ rights, and does he expect this to continue?
I do indeed expect this to continue. Many of the rights that we have introduced—including, for example, the right to request a stable contract—were pioneered in this country, and are only now being taken up by other European countries.
A couple of weeks ago, Labour colleagues and I crossed the road to Parliament Square to talk to outsourced Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy workers from the Public and Commercial Services Union and the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain, who were demanding equal terms and conditions with directly employed staff. They were disappointed that no Minister from the Department came to talk to them. If anyone had, they would have heard how people’s status as contracted-out workers is a fundamental cause of their insecurity.
We have heard fine words from the Secretary of State about workers’ rights recently, yet here is an example of workers being forced into precarious contracts under his very nose. Will he outline what he is doing to put his own house in order to help resolve this dispute? And, in the process, will he learn the lesson that outsourcing is the cause of insecurity and poverty pay?
I value very highly the work of all the staff in my Department. I met some of the staff she has mentioned, who were affected. I asked my officials to review the comparable levels of pay that such staff receive, and those pay rates have been increased as a result. It was a good and constructive discussion with my much valued colleagues.
Leaving the EU: Businesses in Scotland
I have regular discussions with the Chancellor about support for businesses in Scotland, as well as in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. As the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) will know, last Wednesday we announced up to £260 million for the borderlands growth deal, which is a cross-party—and clearly a cross-border—partnership that has been hailed as a game changer by all the bodies involved, including the Scottish Government. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the best way to support business in Scotland is to end the uncertainty that comes from Brexit and to join the Government in agreeing a deal.
Actually, the best support for businesses in Scotland would presumably be for Scotland to stay in the European Union, because IDA Ireland reckons that its country has gained more than 5,000 jobs as a result of Brexit-related investment, so it is a little bit perverse that it seems to be that the countries staying in the European Union are enjoying the benefits that were supposed to come from leaving.
The best chance for Scotland to enjoy prosperity in the future is to stay in the United Kingdom, and I hope the hon. Gentleman would support that. I am very surprised that he would mention jobs in the Scotland when, under the SNP, jobs growth in Scotland has been far behind the good statistics that I was able to give for the whole country. Indeed, if Scotland had matched the rate of job creation in England, there would now be nearly 200,000 more Scots with a job.
An Ernst & Young survey found that only 8% of Scottish firms feel fully ready for Brexit. Does the Secretary of State regret his failure to accept the SNP’s and the Institute of Directors’ demands for a £750 million support service to help small and medium-sized businesses to navigate Brexit?
No. Advice and support are available to every business across the United Kingdom, including, of course, businesses in Scotland. I work very closely with the Scottish Government. They are represented on the groups that are developing the contingency plans for a no-deal Brexit, and businesses are included in that.
In Scotland, as in the rest of the United Kingdom, there are grants of up to £1,050 per employee for training employees, and up to £200,000 for new IT systems for dealing with new customs arrangements. Given the importance of this, why is it not more widely advertised both in Scotland and in the United Kingdom?
My right hon. Friend makes an excellent point. As he knows from the industrial strategy—he was closely involved in its construction—grants and assistance for training, especially for employees whose jobs change as a result of technological change, is a very important contribution that we can make, and I am glad that he has brought it to the attention of the House.
What discussions has my right hon. Friend had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer about making sure that the UK shared prosperity fund is UK-wide and allows the UK Government to work with public and private partners across the whole of the Union?
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. That is absolutely the intention. The fund will be UK-wide and continue the progress that has been made, not least through the city deals programme. All the major cities of Scotland have benefited from a city deal that embraces the UK Government, the Scottish Government, and local authorities. That is a good model that is working and is successful.
As my hon. Friend knows, I am very pleased to discuss our leadership position in this area. We have led the G7 in cutting emissions while growing our national income. Since 2000, we have topped the global leader board of the G20 in reducing our annual carbon intensity. I set out, a couple of years ago now, how the clean growth strategy will take that progress forward and, indeed, accelerate it. The recent offshore wind sector deal was a fantastic example of how we can work with industry to advance our decarbonisation but also to create jobs right across the UK.
The growth of offshore wind is providing great opportunities for coastal communities around the United Kingdom, including the port of Fraserburgh in my constituency, which is set to host an operations and maintenance base for the Moray East wind farm project. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the new offshore wind sector deal will help more ports like Fraserburgh to benefit from this key aspect of our future energy sector?
Most certainly. In an uncertain world, to go and stand on the docks of Lowestoft and visit Great Yarmouth and see the wind turbines and feel the wind is actually to see the future—this incredible opportunity. We have the best conditions for offshore wind generation in the world, and that will create jobs right across the UK—we estimate over 27,000 by 2030. We are world-leading in this: very few countries have even started to install. We reckon that exports of up to £2.6 billion will be available, and of course the benefits from that will flow to coastal communities right across the UK.
Will the Minister join me in congratulating Bacon Engineering in Great Grimsby on its 120th anniversary? Will she commit to work with me to assist local companies like that to become part of the supply chain of the energy estuary’s burgeoning offshore wind sector?
The offshore wind sector deal was a gift that kept on giving, because the hon. Lady and I had the great pleasure of discussing that with the Prime Minister on the Friday after the launch and seeing the incredible opportunities already flowing to the wonderful port of Grimsby, which she represents very well. I would love to congratulate that local firm and work with her on this groundbreaking sector deal.
We have known how to build houses that cost nothing to heat for 20 years, but we just do not do it. Does the Minister agree that one of the best ways to get clean growth is to support my Housing Reform Bill, which would supply serviced plots of land on which thermally efficient houses could be built?
My hon. Friend is a wonderful campaigner on this new and exciting area of house building, which is part of the grand challenge. I was very pleased, as I am sure he was, to see the Chancellor commit last week to phase out fossil fuel heating in homes from 2025. We know we can decarbonise. We know we need to do more.
All of us will support the Government in their attempts to deliver clean growth, but we need international action. Can the Minister be more specific about what the Government are doing to encourage international action to increase clean growth?
I enjoyed what might be the last ever meeting of EU Energy Ministers last week, where it was clear that our leadership, which has been so important in the EU, will continue unabated. Countries look to us and want to work with us. The hon. Gentleman will know that we are in the process of bidding to host the 2020 climate change talks here in the UK. To me, that is the most seminal moment since the Paris talks, as we will have to show our national contributions and see whether we are on track. I would love to get his support for that bid.
More than 60 of the UK’s onshore wind farms are set to reach the end of their support deals in the next five years. How will the Government ensure that we do not lose our onshore wind capacity as those plants reach the end of their lives?
I am sure that my hon. Friend, like me, welcomes the fact that we already have more than 13 GW of onshore wind installed. As she says, much of that is reaching the end of its life. Those plants can be repowered to generate more energy, and we expect them to be, but any application must be consistent with what local people want, so I expect developers to work closely with local communities to deliver that.
In spite of what the Minister says, her Government’s nuclear dogma is holding back Scotland’s green growth. Having lost market confidence in the Moorside, Wylfa and Oldbury-on-Severn nuclear projects, will she get the message about nuclear’s terminal decline and start backing Scotland’s renewables growth revolution instead?
The hon. Gentleman needs to understand that we welcome the fact that we have a diverse energy supply. As we have discussed, there are thousands of jobs to be created from renewables but also from our world-leading nuclear installations. We need a low-carbon, reliable, low-cost energy system, and thanks to the work we are doing, we think that over 70% of the UK’s energy supply will be zero-carbon in just 11 years.
The facts are that, compared with offshore wind, the Tory Hinkley project will saddle consumers with a 35% tax on energy bills. Given that this Government currently have no consequences for Ministers who switch policies, is this not the right time to take advantage of that, do the right thing and scrap this nuclear obsession?
I just cannot agree with the hon. Gentleman. He might make good headlines, but he knows that we should pride ourselves on having a diverse, low-cost energy system. We have to deliver energy security, and those thousands of highly skilled nuclear jobs, which are increasingly going to women, are a really good thing for the UK.
SMEs in Scotland
We have regular discussions with our ministerial colleagues on this matter, and most recently on the £260 million borderlands growth deal announced by the Chancellor in the spring statement. Our industrial strategy sets out our ambition to make the UK the best place to start and grow a business, and central to that is our ongoing commitment to the British Business Bank, which supported £467 million of finance to more than 3,600 Scottish businesses in 2017-18.
I thank the Minister for his response. He will be aware of the importance of banking services to small businesses, particularly in rural and more fragile areas, and the closure of banks has hit many of these small businesses hard, not least in East Neuk in my own constituency. What action is he taking to look at, for example, increasing transaction remuneration to post offices, which are increasingly important to those businesses?
I understand from the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, my hon. Friend the Member for Rochester and Strood (Kelly Tolhurst), that she is currently negotiating the banking framework. I also want to set out the support that the British Business Bank gives to start-up businesses: 3,200 businesses have received £22 million in funding in recent years. We have 48,000 more businesses in Scotland compared with 2010. That is good news, and we need to make sure that we continue to support businesses, particularly the rural ones the hon. Gentleman mentions.
Small Business Support
We are backing young entrepreneurs by launching an independent review, led by the Prince’s Trust, to understand how we can better support them to turn their business dreams into reality. We are backing small and medium-sized enterprises with our spending power, with our ambitious strategy to ensure that at least £1 in every £3 we spend as a Department is spent with smaller businesses by 2022.
I thank the Minister for bringing forward the future high streets fund, which will be really important for small businesses on Mansfield High Street, and for the meetings I have been able to have with the Government about how to make sure that Mansfield can benefit. The council is now consulting with stakeholders on its proposals. Will Ministers agree to meet me so that I can make the case for Mansfield’s bid to the future high streets fund?
My hon. Friend is right. High streets are changing, and the Government are committed to helping communities adapt. In the Budget, we set out our plan for high streets, with a £1.6 billion package to support the sustainable transformation of our high streets, which includes the future high streets fund. My hon. Friend is a passionate campaigner for his town, and I would very much welcome the opportunity to hear his proposals for the regeneration of Mansfield town centre, coupled with the investment and plans already being put in place through the growth deal.
Will the Minister join me in acknowledging the welcome focus the Government have put on tackling late payment to small businesses? Will she confirm that improvement in payment times could release billions of pounds back into the economy to ensure that our SME sector remains vibrant and thrives?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question, and he is quite right. Tackling late payments will indeed do just as he says. It is true that late payments can be extremely damaging for small businesses, and that is why we are committed to tackling it. In his first year, the Small Business Commissioner has managed to collect over £2 million owed to small businesses. In the spring statement last week, we announced a requirement on audit committees to review their payment practices. I look forward, in the very short term, to bringing forward a full package of policy measures to tackle just that.
Last weekend, I was pleased to support High Street Saturday in Crawley town centre. Will my hon. Friend welcome the £900 million in business rate reductions, which is really starting to help small businesses on our high streets?
I thank my hon. Friend for giving me the opportunity to welcome this cut in business rates. He will also be pleased to hear that, because of the updated forecasts from local authorities, the discount is now worth nearly £1 billion to retailers over two years, further bolstering this Government’s plan for the high street, which is now worth £1.6 billion, and directly benefiting some of our smallest retail businesses. My hon. Friend is a great campaigner for Crawley, and I am sure he will continue to ask questions on this subject.
With just 10 days to go to a possible no-deal Brexit, only a third of the small businesses that trade exclusively with Europe have applied for and received their so-called EORI—economic operator registration and identification—numbers that will enable them to continue to do so. Those numbers could be allocated automatically by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. Will the Minister lobby HMRC to tell it to do that, and back British business?
The hon. Gentleman raises a very important point. It is true that we are making sure, as this Department is charged to do, that small businesses are absolutely aware of their obligations in regard to a no-deal Brexit. I would point out to him that HMRC is reissuing those numbers within 24 hours of small businesses applying.
Staff working insecure hours for the Hull-based small business Grotto Hire UK, which operates Santa’s grottos, have still not been paid, and many are owed thousands of pounds. The company owner offered to put the company into liquidation so that the staff could claim through the insolvency fund, but his appointed liquidators have now pulled out, leaving the company still running. Will the Minister please meet me to discuss this appalling situation and look at how the company can be wound up in the public interest?
The point that the hon. Lady raises is really important, especially for her constituents. I will be more than happy to meet with her to discuss those issues.
Small businesses and our high streets are hugely damaged by the closure of bank branches right across the country, which nets the banks, which we bailed out with taxpayers’ money, a vast amount of money in savings. Will the Minister consider a windfall tax on the banks to ensure that we redistribute some of that money back into our high streets to support small businesses?
The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. Tax is a responsibility of the Treasury, but as he will know, including after our conversations yesterday—this was also alluded to earlier in questions—post offices are still an important part of our high streets, and the Post Office is currently negotiating a new banking framework. It is absolutely right that, when banks are pulling out of our high streets, the post offices that are delivering the services are remunerated correctly for that.
The duty for large companies to report how quickly they pay their suppliers is of course welcome—80% of businesses that fail do so as a result of late payments—but to be effective, the new duty to report will need some teeth, such as binding arbitration and fines for persistent offenders. This Government’s use of sanctions against the poorest has been disgraceful, so how about using sanctions against some of the most powerful and making sure that large corporations treat their small business suppliers fairly?
Late payments and the way that some large businesses have behaved in the past have been an issue for decades, and it is this Government who are prepared to make changes and bring forward policies to reduce them. We know that late payments can be incredibly damaging for businesses. That is the reason for the Chancellor’s announcement last week about the responsibility of committees to look at payment practices, and I look forward to making further proposals.
UK Space Industry
In the past month we have invested £18 million in the OneWeb satellite constellation to deliver global 5G communications, which I announced at the European Space Agency in the Netherlands. Last week we announced £7 million for the SMILE—Solar wind Magnetosphere Ionosphere Link Explorer—mission. In addition, we announced £25 million for the PLATO—planetary transits and oscillations of stars—observatory mission, and last week we signed the Square Kilometre Array treaty, which will see £180 million invested in the world’s largest telescope.
I thank the Minister for that answer, but will he confirm that the Government remain positive about the potential of a horizontal-launch spaceport at Cornwall airport Newquay? Will he continue to work to provide the support needed to move that development forward, which would be of such benefit to the Cornish economy? Will he also come to Cornwall and see for himself the potential of the site?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question; we had a positive meeting with the spaceport team last week. I am keen to do what I can to progress the hard work that has been done to put together an exciting project. The Government are investing £50 million to kick-start operations for a UK spaceport, including a £2 million fund for spaceports planning to host air-launched rockets and sub-orbital space planes. I will come down to Cornwall next month.
Can the Minister confirm that it remains his intention to help the UK space industry by developing an alternative to the European Union’s Galileo system?
The Government have committed £92 million to developing options for a domestic alternative to Galileo. The UK Space Agency is leading work with the full support of the Ministry of Defence. Contracts are being let with UK companies. Around 50 have made expressions of interest in the process, which will help to keep important skills and expertise in satellite navigation.
The Minister might know that some of the finest engineering companies in Huddersfield are busy providing components for space probes, including the one that went to Mars. Our great town is really on the cutting edge, so will he visit Huddersfield and see what an enterprising, get-up-and-go town can do for small businesses and large businesses? Components come from all over Europe, so will he also come and reassure people who are terrified of what could happen with Europe?
I can confirm that I will visit Huddersfield on 10 May. I am going to the university there, and I will ensure that I speak to the hon. Gentleman and arrange to meet the companies as part of my visit.
I say to the Minister, who is a serious academic, that I have had the great joy of giving a lecture at the university. It is an admirable institution and they are very hospitable, so I think they will very much look forward to seeing and hearing the Minister.
Not every region of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland can be part of the UK space industry, but every region deserves the opportunity for employment. Will the Minister indicate what has been done to ensure that all regions have those employment opportunities?
When we look at our space industry, we see that it is truly part of the United Kingdom, right across every place. I went to Northern Ireland to see Thales and the work that it is doing on some of the satellite applications. Up in Sutherland in Scotland, we have a £31.5 million investment in vertical space launch. We want to ensure that our space industry—one of the fastest-growing industries in all of business—covers the whole of the UK.
Marine Renewable Electricity Generation
It was a pleasure to meet the right hon. Gentleman and a cross-party group of colleagues only last month to discuss this matter. I commend the Marine Energy Council for the work that it has done, and indeed I see that it has published some interesting analysis today. We have provided £175 million of innovation funding to the sector. We all want it to succeed. We have the first pre-commercial array deployed off Caithness and, of course, we have the European Marine Energy Centre in his constituency.
I thank the Minister for the meeting last month. We are now engaging with the Treasury in respect of revenue support for the sector, and any support that she can give it will be very welcome. In the meantime, however, we have the prospect of the energy White Paper. Will she use her offices to ensure that the potential for marine renewable energy generation is fully recognised when that White Paper comes to publication?
I do not want to pre-empt the White Paper, but I think that one thing we will show in it is how the ongoing attempts to be technology-neutral can work across the piece to generate low-cost, low-carbon energy, and highly competitive technologies will be part of that. We remain interested in marine and tidal, as the right hon. Gentleman knows. Of course, we need to discuss with the Treasury any revenue support mechanisms, but I want to continue to engage with the sector on a long-term basis.
The Minister will be aware that the proposed Swansea Bay city deal would include a strong marine energy component centred on Pembroke Dock. She will also be aware that the growth deal is beset with concerns and questions about its progress, so will the Minister, along with Welsh Ministers, please look into the marine renewables part of the project to ensure that progress is made and opportunities are not lost?
Of course, it is striking that we had the very interesting Swansea tidal bid, which would have been the most expensive power station in the UK had we built it, and that that project has now come forward in a different form not requiring Government subsidy. There is huge potential to continue to work with the communities of Swansea and across Wales, and I will be delighted to keep working with them.
Fifty per cent. of Europe’s tidal and 35% of its wave energy resource are in UK waters, but the Government have still not provided the marine renewables industry with a secure route from experimental phase through to demonstrator phase through to full commercial development. Recent research from the Offshore Renewable Energy Catapult shows that revenue support could enable marine renewables to create up to 50,000 new jobs and dominate more than 30% of a global market estimated at £76 billion by 2050. Does the Minister accept that the contract for difference auctions are not an adequate mechanism to support emerging technologies such as marine renewables at this stage in their development, and will she take action to provide a competitive funding pool in the energy White Paper to support the UK’s innovative marine technologies and enable the UK to gain its rightful share of this exciting global market?
I hope that the hon. Gentleman’s thesis will be peer-reviewed.
I will attempt to do that, Mr Speaker. The hon. Gentleman will know, of course, that all these technologies basically started off in the same place. Arguably, marine and tidal have received more innovation funding. They have not been able to demonstrate a cost reduction pathway commensurate with, for example, offshore wind, but he is right to say that we need to look at ways to try to bring these technologies forward and we will continue to do so.
Industrial Strategy: High-quality Jobs
The industrial strategy is based on increasing the number of high-quality and well-paid jobs because it invests in skills, infrastructure and innovation, as well as building long-term strategic partnerships with businesses through sector deals between the Government and industry.
As my hon. Friend will be aware, we often talk about our being the fifth largest economy, but by GDP per head we are ranked about 23rd or 24th, according to the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Does he agree that greater export penetration into growing markets overseas will help to raise that GDP per head and that an independent trade policy could boost that endeavour?
I agree with my hon. Friend. In his own constituency, six companies have received the Queen’s award for international trade. He understands the importance of exports. I agree that the UK needs to deploy all the tools at its disposal to support UK exporters, and a key part of that is tailoring our trade policy to the strengths and requirements of our economy and supporting the delivery of the industrial strategy.
Today’s Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee report singles out the steel industry as having been particularly failed by the Government’s industrial strategy. On behalf of the steel sector in my constituency, can I ask the Minister when the Government will get back around the table to take action on issues such as energy prices?
I discussed this issue yesterday through the good offices of the all-party group on steel and metal related industries—several hon. Members were there—and agreed to hold a roundtable with all parties, including, I hope, the hon. Lady, to discuss how we can progress the sector deal.
General Electric in Stafford—and indeed in Rugby—provides excellent, high-quality and well-paid jobs through its investment in energy, particularly good energy. Can I invite the Minister or his colleague the Energy Minister to come and see what world-leading technology is being developed in Stafford?
I cannot answer for my right hon. Friend, who is capable of visiting wherever she likes—in fact, she is omnipresent all over the country with her visits—but I would be delighted to visit GE and anywhere else in Stafford my hon. Friend thinks suitable.
Will the Minister spell out yet again the extent of his support in the industrial strategy for the likes of Bombardier and related industries in Northern Ireland?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, I meet regularly with Bombardier, as does my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. It is a regular visitor to my office and is always welcome. I am interested to hear its views on anything.
It is more than a year since the Government committed to putting as much emphasis on the quality of jobs as on the quantity. In their response to the Taylor review last February, they said:
“We will…report annually on the quality of work in the UK economy…and…hold ourselves to account”.
How much longer do we have to wait for the first assessment of job quality in the UK?
We gave our answer in our response to the Taylor review, but the Government have also published a good work plan, in which we commit to ways of delivering better jobs for everyone in the British economy.
The right measure is to look at carbon dioxide reduction as a unit of national income—the carbon intensity measure—and BEIS will publish its own numbers at the end of May and then make the assessment. I am sure that, like me, the hon. Gentleman welcomes the fact that we have been decarbonising faster than any other G7 or G20 economy and that in the last year for which we have data our decarbonisation rate—on the intensity measure—was minus 4.7%. We know we have to do more, but I hope he welcomes the measures on hard-to-reach sectors, such as decarbonising the heating grid. We should be proud of what we have achieved.
The UN says that we have less than 12 years to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, and on Friday thousands of schoolchildren marched for their futures. Given that emissions fell last year by only 1.5%—less than half the 3.2% fall recorded the year before—does the Minister agree with the Environmental Audit Committee that the Government are “coasting” on climate change?
Far from it. I do not recognise those numbers. I have got into trouble before for saying I probably would have been out there with those kids several years ago—I recognise the admirable passion and urgency with which they have raised this matter, although we need their skills to solve this problem. The best way to solve the climate problem is to create a generation of geo-engineers, climate scientists and technologists, and they have to learn those skills in the classroom.
We are absolutely not coasting, but we need strong cross-party support to deliver this change. It is striking that when we debate our relationship with the earth’s climate for the next 40 years, this place is half empty, but when we debate our relationship with the EU for the next three years, it is jam-crammed. We need to get beyond Brexit and start focusing on the future.
The Minister is rightly encouraging the use of electric vehicles, but, as she will appreciate, in the commercial sector there is, on occasion, inadequate supply in the grid. Will she recognise the valuable role played by Off Grid Energy in my constituency, which has storage technology, and whose latest project for the Oxford Bus Company involves capturing energy from solar panels and storing it so that the buses can be charged up overnight?
My hon. Friend—whose constituency is known for its engineering excellence—is absolutely right. As is clear from the smart systems plan for the future and the smart export guarantee, decentralised energy generation storage is one of the ways in which we can maximise the value of electric vehicle roll-out and its contribution to solving the generation and storage problem.
Skilled Green Jobs
As the hon. Lady will know, nearly 400,000 people—more than the number employed in aerospace—are working in the low-carbon economy. As last week’s offshore wind sector deal made clear, the focus on job creation is paramount, but we must also focus more on diversity in the sector, and I am very proud of the commitment by the industry and the Government to ensuring that at least a third of the 27,000 jobs that will be created are going to women by 2030.
Lewisham Council recently declared a climate emergency, and called for urgent action on the environment. Tackling climate change will require a radical transformation of the economy and society, including investment in green industries. Will the Minister match Labour’s commitment to a green industrial revolution creating 400,000 jobs across the country?
I always admire the hon. Lady’s enthusiasm, but committing themselves to a target that we have already achieved is perhaps not the most stretching thing that the Opposition could do. However, I welcome Lewisham Council’s declaration of a climate emergency. My local authority, Wiltshire County Council, has done the same.
I am struck by the sense of urgency in schools and local authorities, and among people throughout the United Kingdom, but we must ensure that the plans we come up with are deliverable and not pie in the sky. Many people have criticised the Opposition’s rather fanciful projections, which they say will never be delivered. I am in the business of delivering policies that add up, can be delivered, and stand the test of time.
Jaguar Land Rover is moving to the production of electric cars, but one of the issues that holds back purchasing is range and the time that it takes to recharge their batteries. What can the Government do to improve battery technology?
Range anxiety is diminishing as battery technology improves. My hon. Friend will know of the Faraday challenge, a cross-Government and industry commitment to not only improving battery manufacturing and technology, but creating some of that value here in the UK.
The UK is leading the world in decarbonising our energy supplies while driving down the cost of clean power. The proportion of our electricity coming from renewables has increased fourfold since 2010, and the cost of clean power is falling fast. The price of offshore wind has fallen by 50% in the last couple of years.
The Secretary of State has just recognised that there is considerable support for renewable energy throughout the country. My local community in High Peak have always been committed to that. “Archie”, the Archimedes’ screw in New Mills, is the first community-owned hydroelectric project. However, the Government are preventing people from becoming involved in renewable energy projects by removing the feed-in tariff and refusing to remove planning blocks on onshore wind, while forcing councils to plan positively for fracking. Will the Secretary of State recommend the scrapping of that policy, and instead require councils to plan positively for renewables?
I think the hon. Lady should recognise the huge progress that has been made, which is beyond what anyone would have expected 10 years ago when the Climate Change Act 2008 was passed. I commend her constituents for their contribution in respect of renewable power. However, as my right hon. Friend the Minister for Energy and Clean Growth has said, the right mechanism must be applied to the right technology. It is better to finance technologies in the early stages of development through innovation funding than to pretend that they can make a significant contribution to the grid.
A renewables mix is hugely important in securing our long-term energy supply, so will the Secretary of State meet me to discuss some of the contradictory barriers in place for solar power, for example, because there are limited technologies that are able to bid for support through the contract for difference scheme?
I will indeed meet my hon. Friend, and I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Energy and Clean Growth will join that conversation. We have a good record in bringing on a range of new technologies and I am very happy to make sure there are no barriers to that.
There will now be a 9 GW cut in future installed capacity by 2030 as a result of Toshiba and Hitachi ending their plans to build three new nuclear power stations. The Secretary of State has also cancelled plans to build tidal lagoons possibly providing about that amount of additional capacity, has banned onshore wind and has run down new solar installations. He has severely limited the auction for new offshore wind to only £60 million of a possible £557 million. Does the Secretary of State agree that on present policies it looks like there will be a substantial capacity gap in power production against likely 2030 demand? Does he have any plan to deal with that? Does he have any plans to revive the lost nuclear power proposals? Does he share the Opposition’s view that, among other things, we will need at least 50 GW of installed offshore wind to help close the gap and meet our climate change commitments?
Quite the opposite is true. One of the reasons why it has proved impossible to finance privately some of these nuclear power stations is that the cost of renewables was falling and the availability was increasing so rapidly that they are being muscled out of the system. The forecast electricity margin for this year is now over 11%, the highest for five years. To put this into context for the hon. Gentleman, the contribution that the Wylfa nuclear power station—3 GW—would have made was procured in a single contract for difference auction for offshore wind. That shows the abundance that we have, rather than the shortage.
Feed-in Tariffs and Power Generation
Solar is a UK success story: 99% of the solar capacity in the UK has been installed since 2010 when I became an MP. The feed-in tariff, however, as the hon. Gentleman knows, is a very expensive way of delivering small-scale generation. It has cost us almost £6 billion to date, and as the price of solar panels has fallen by 80%—I can see the hon. Gentleman sighing but numbers and value for money tend to matter on the Government Benches—I decided to bring forward the smart export guarantee, which opens up the market for small-scale generations and ensures that everybody is paid for power they export to the grid.
From listening to the Government’s rhetoric on climate change, we could be forgiven for thinking that the school strikers are coming out in support of them; they are coming out against them, and if we cut through the greenwash we see the feed-in tariff axed, the solar energy sector decimated, and now the exports payments framework about to be ended and no replacement put in place. So let me ask this: will the Government ever announce a cut to the lavish support they dole out to their friends in the fossil fuel industry?
It is news to me that the Labour party’s policy is to be anti the oil and gas industry that employs so many hundreds of thousands of people. And when it comes to rhetoric, the hon. Gentleman should just go and practise in front of the bathroom mirror. I am happy to share the facts with him again—[Interruption.] Perhaps he is going to ask me to get on my knees next, Mr Speaker. [Interruption.] What we do on the Government side of the House is focus on facts—[Interruption.] You know, Mr Speaker, the hon. Gentleman was very clear that he was not a misogynist bully boy; I think his activities and behaviour today suggests quite the opposite. If he would like me to answer the question——[Interruption.] The answer to the question is this: we have not slashed support for renewable energy. We are now moving to a point where renewable energy no longer requires subsidy to deploy. If the hon. Gentleman could just stop equating Government spending with success and look at the results, he will see that we do not subsidise things that we do not have to, which means we can focus on bringing other technologies to market.
Industrial Strategy: New Hospitals
On the question of whether hospital projects should be part of the industrial strategy, I absolutely agree. They are part of an industry in an area—health campuses, science, research and development, and, not least, modular construction and everything in our construction sector deal.
Together with the £400 million move of Public Health England to Harlow by 2024, a brand-new healthcare hospital campus would make Harlow the health science capital of the UK. Will my hon. Friend work with the Treasury to support capital funding for the desperately needed new hospital in Harlow?
My right hon. Friend could not be a greater champion for the Harlow hospital and health campus; in fact, I would honourably suggest that it should be named after him. However, he is absolutely right: the Treasury has to consider this and other bids, including the wonderful Watford General Hospital health campus, which I support. I am sure it will reach the right conclusion that these bids are fantastic for local areas—not just for the hospital but for industrial development for the future in those areas.
One of the frustrations about the dominance of our Brexit debates over the last two years is that insufficient attention is given to the fact that this is one of the most exciting times for British industry and commerce since the first industrial revolution, which was forged in this country. We are in the vanguard of so many of the industries of the future. Earlier this month, my right hon. Friend the Energy Minister was in Lowestoft and, again, in Grimsby to launch the offshore wind sector deal—the 10th sector deal in our industrial strategy. It is helping Britain to procure a third of its electricity through offshore power by 2020, to provide a lead right around the world and to export good technology.
I share my right hon. Friend’s optimism and enthusiasm for the opportunities that lie ahead for this country. Following the Chancellor’s statement last week, when specific measures were announced, which I welcome, could he elaborate on how he expects the UK to take a lead in science and innovation to develop new technologies for renewables, which he touched on, and new materials?
My right hon. Friend is correct that our reputation for science and innovation, and the standing of our universities, are among the best in the world. At a time when every country around the world is investing in the technologies of the future, we need to emphasise the abilities and talents we have. Through the industrial strategy, we have the biggest increase in public and private sector spending and innovation that we have ever had in this country. It is already making a difference, but we have more to do.
Our automotive sector is facing significant challenges. To quote the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders,
“There is a perfect storm of a hostile global trading environment, the imminent threat of significant tariffs on cars exported to the US, rising costs, technological revolution and the already damaging impact of Brexit on the UK industry”.
This perfect storm has already claimed some victims: Honda in Swindon, the loss of the production of the X-Trail and Infiniti models in Sunderland, and the loss of thousands of jobs at Jaguar Land Rover and Ford. The sector needs immediate and substantial support. Does the Secretary of State think the Government are doing enough?
I am glad the hon. Lady recognises the importance and effectiveness of our automotive sector. She is absolutely right that the acceleration of the shift to new technologies is affecting the sector in every country around the world. Through our industrial strategy, agreed with the automotive sector through the sector deal, and the Faraday challenge, we are advancing our position in battery technology. That makes sure that, when the new generation of batteries are produced, they are produced in Britain, guaranteeing our future.
Those are warm words from the Secretary of State, but actions speak louder. On Brexit, his Government have threatened a catastrophic no deal and run down the clock. On rising costs, the Government have allowed costs such as industrial electricity prices and business rates to disadvantage UK manufacturers. On electrification, the Government have allowed us to fall behind. The planned charging infrastructure investment fund is still not in operation 16 months after it was announced, and subsidies for electric vehicles have been cut. Is not the truth that this Government are failing to provide the automotive sector with the support it needs to weather this perfect storm?
We are the leading country in Europe when it comes to the production of electric vehicles, and as the hon. Lady is well aware, we have, through the industrial strategy, advanced our leadership position. However, if she listens to the leaders of the automotive sector, they say one thing time and again very clearly: we need to conclude a deal with the European Union. They have endorsed comprehensively the deal the Prime Minister has negotiated. If the hon. Lady is concerned for the future of this important sector, she would compromise and recognise the importance of bringing to an end this uncertainty and passing the deal.
Our business environment is among the best in the world. By reducing corporation tax and investing in skills, innovation and productivity-boosting schemes, we are supporting businesses to compete in an ever-changing market. Ensuring that businesses can access finance is key, and the British Business Bank has the tools to make that happen, including its enterprise finance guarantee scheme, start-up loans and our export strategy.
The hon. Gentleman is right that CO2 molecules do not care where they are emitted or where they have an impact. I am delighted to tell him that we are one of the world’s largest donors of climate-facing aid, with £5.8 billion over this Parliament, about half of which is spent on adaptation and half on mitigation. There is clearly more to do, but we should be proud of that record.
My hon. Friend speaks proudly of the hundreds of high-skilled jobs in his constituency, and there are hundreds of thousands such jobs across the UK. We are increasing R&D spend across the piece, but innovation in the oil and gas sector is driven through the almost £200 million investment in the oil and gas technology centre, which I have been pleased to visit, including £90 million from the Government.
The hon. Gentleman knows that I have been in discussion with the industry. The sector has participated in the development of the path to the decarbonisation of vehicles, and it is important that we are consistent with that. However, part of that process is about recognising that buying a diesel car is a perfectly reasonable choice for many people, but some people have got the wrong impression from the announcement.
My hon. Friend is a passionate campaigner in this area and for his constituents, and he knows that I would particularly like to tackle this matter. Insolvency practitioners must adhere to the insolvency code of ethics and must not allow conflicts of interest to override the fundamental principles of objectivity. Breaching the code may result in regulatory action, such as a fine, reprimand or, in the most serious of circumstances, the removal of a licence. The code is currently being updated by the recognised professional bodies that licence insolvency practitioners, but I will continue the dialogue with my hon. Friend on this matter.
The hon. Lady raises an important point, but she knows we are doing a lot in this area to strengthen employment rights for people in the workplace. We have the good work plan, we are looking at flexibility, we are increasing holiday pay and we are always looking at how we can improve the situation for workers, whether the self-employed or general workers.
The spring statement was indeed a statement for research, innovation and science. Looking at just one of those investments, there is £60 million to keep the Joint European Torus facility going, and there are hundreds of jobs and tens of PhDs at that facility. I am delighted that the Chancellor made that commitment as we move forward to 2.4% of GDP being spent on research and development by 2027.
Substantial analysis has shown that, of all the options available, the Prime Minister’s deal is the one that provides the best economic future, and I hope the hon. Lady will support it.
Post offices are at the heart of our communities, so does the Minister welcome the news that Newick post office in my constituency, after being closed for months following the sad death of the postmaster, Terry, is set to reopen? Does she agree that we must do all we can to keep post offices open in our rural communities?
I thank my hon. Friend for the work she has done with her constituents, the Post Office and the community to make sure that the post office in Newick is reopened. Post offices play an important role in our communities, and we are committed to maintaining the network of 11,500 post offices with the support of MPs like her.
As the hon. Lady knows after our meeting yesterday afternoon to discuss this issue, we are committed to delivering and maintaining the post office network, which did not happen under the last Labour Government, when there was a reduction. As I have already outlined and made very clear, where there are concerns about specific branches, practices and consultations, I will personally raise them directly with the Post Office.
Will the Secretary of State give an update on the next phase of the Greater Grimsby town deal?
I am delighted that the Prime Minister was able to join my hon. Friend, the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn) and me to celebrate the success of the beginning of that deal. The next phase is about investment in skills, and I look forward to visiting Cleethorpes and Grimsby to inaugurate that important set of investments in the skills of the population.
Order. We are running very late. One sentence questions.
At the last general election, Labour promised to introduce a “Post Bank” to combat financial exclusion and ensure that everyone has access to banking services in their community. Does the Secretary of State agree that introducing a Post Bank to provide banking services in post offices would do wonders for the high street, as well as reducing financial exclusion?
The hon. Gentleman gives me an opportunity to talk about the fact that we already offer banking services in our post offices. As I outlined earlier, we are doing the most we can to make sure that post offices and sub-postmasters are remunerated for the work they do.
Order. I am sorry, but the questions and answers are just too long. I am trying to help the House, but what we want is a brief question and a brief answer, not a speech.
Barclays has just announced another swathe of branch closures that affect my constituency, as the banks continue their flight from small towns and rural areas. Where does the Minister think all this will end? Does she agree that banks have a wider social obligation?
I agree with my right hon. Friend that banks have a wider social responsibility. That is why I am committed to working with the Post Office to make sure that under the new banking framework post offices are remunerated correctly for the service they are providing for communities that the banks have moved away from.
Fracking is bad for the environment, our health, our democracy, our landscape and even the courts. Does the Minister recognise that the Government are on shaky ground, quite literally, and will they ditch their support for this failing industry?
We have said repeatedly that the opportunity to create a home-grown energy source that provides thousands of jobs in parts of the country that economic policies have not been able to help, with the toughest regulations for oil and gas exploration in the world, is something that we should soberly and sensibly explore. That continues to be the case.
What progress is being made to upgrade SMETS 1 smart meters to allow them to function interoperably?
The switchover has already started. The priority is smart meters that have gone dumb through customers switching, because we do not want there to be an impediment to switching. The commitment is unchanged: it will be rolled out completely by the end of 2020.
A common feature of all patient safety scandals is that whistleblowers were ignored, intimidated or lost their careers, and were not protected by the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998. Will the Secretary of State bring forward legislation for all sectors to ensure that that concern is investigated and that whistleblowers are protected?
The hon. Lady addresses a very important area that I am extremely concerned about. The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy is working closely with the Department of Health and Social Care on how we can best strengthen the protection for whistleblowers within the NHS to support families and staff who raise concerns. This is a key area for us and I will continue to communicate with her on it.
I am sorry to disappoint the large number of colleagues remaining, but on the principle that one should encourage an up and coming young Member at the conclusion of proceedings, I call Mr Dennis Skinner.
Why should Jim Ratcliffe make millions creating misery for all the people affected by fracking? Coincidentally, there are not many jobs either.
The hon. Gentleman, as a proud representative of a former coalfield community, knows that, to the contrary, many people, including the GMB, support the fracking policy because of its potential—
The hon. Gentleman says the unions are wrong—that is probably a first. People support fracking because of its potential to create jobs. [Interruption.] Crikey, if he would stop yelling. I must say that I feel desperately sorry for female Members on the Opposition Benches if this is how their colleagues treat them: being howled down, winked at—the other hon. Gentleman is not in his place—and having kisses blown after a question. The brocialists are in full control of the Labour party. I know that the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr Skinner) will accept that we need to explore the science sensibly and see whether there is a natural resource there, because when he was digging up coal, energy security used to matter.
I am genuinely sorry to disappoint remaining colleagues, but demand has exceeded supply, as is so often the case at Question Time.
Child Sexual Exploitation Victims: Criminal Records
Before I call the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh) to ask her urgent question and the Minister to respond, I must advise right hon. and hon. Members that under the terms of the House’s resolution on matters sub judice, they should not refer to specific cases that are currently before the courts. It should not be beyond the ingenuity of right hon. and hon. Members to find ways of airing the issue without mentioning the specifics in a way that could threaten the legal process.
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department to make a statement on criminal records disclosure for victims of child sexual exploitation.
I am conscious that, as you outlined, Mr Speaker, this question relates to an ongoing legal case, and that as such it would not be appropriate to comment on the specific case or cases. I assure you that the Government want all victims and survivors of sexual abuse and exploitation to feel that they can come forward to report abuse, and get the support they need when they do so. We are committed to working across Government to ensure that victims can move on from the abuse they have suffered, and that professionals, including the police, who come into contact with a victim recognise exploitation when they see it and respond appropriately.
The Government are committed to acting to protect the public and help employers make safe recruitment decisions. The disclosure and barring regime plays an important part in supporting employers to make informed recruitment decisions about roles that involve working with children or vulnerable adults, and in a limited range of other circumstances. The criminal record disclosure regime seeks to strike a balance between safeguarding children and enabling individuals to put their offending behind them.
The House will be aware that the Supreme Court recently handed down a judgment in the case of P and others that affects certain rules governing the disclosure regime. We are still waiting for the order from the Supreme Court, but we are considering the implications of the judgment and will respond in due course. It is important to note, however, that the Supreme Court recognises that the regime balances public protection with individuals’ right to a private life. It applies only to certain protected jobs, and it is for employers to decide someone’s suitability for a role once they are armed with the facts.
Thank you for granting this urgent question, Mr Speaker. Just before Christmas, you welcomed Sammy Woodhouse to this Parliament. You, the Leader of the Opposition, the Prime Minister and the leader of the SNP all praised her bravery in speaking out and waiving her anonymity in order to protect other victims and survivors of child sexual exploitation. In that instance, we discussed CSE survivors’ experience in the family courts. It is good to see the Justice Minister in his place. I hope we can make progress on that issue.
Everyone in this House owes it to Sammy and all victims of child sexual exploitation to do everything in our power to reward her bravery and ensure that no one has to endure the appalling, unimaginable abuse that she experienced. We must all ensure that the state in all its forms no longer fails CSE survivors. They are forced to confront their past every day of their lives through the painful trauma that never leaves them, which many simply cannot escape. Their bravery in the face of all that has happened to them is humbling.
The victims are forced to live not only with their trauma but with convictions linked to their sexual exploitation in childhood. They are blighted by an obligation to disclose criminal convictions linked to past abuse. They are forced to tell employers and even local parent teacher associations about their past convictions. That punitive rule means that they simply cannot escape a past in which they were victims.
I understand your ruling that we are unable to refer to sub judice cases, Mr Speaker, but Sammy will not mind me referring to her record, which includes possession of an offensive weapon and affray. Both are explicitly linked to her grooming. When she was 15, the police raided the property of now-convicted serial rapist Arshid Hussain. Sammy was half-naked and hiding under his bed. Hussain was not detained, but Sammy was arrested and charged. She was a victim of exploitation and is now forced to disclose her criminal convictions—crimes she committed only through her exploitation.
Judges in the High Court have already ruled that forcing victims of CSE to disclose past convictions linked to CSE is unjust. They argued that
“any link between the past offending, and the assessment of present risk in a particular employment, is either non-existent or at best extremely tenuous.”
I ask the Minister, what is the Government’s position on record disclosure of CSE survivors?
One of the single biggest tasks of this Parliament and society is to create an environment in which victims of child sexual exploitation are given the best possible chance not to allow their past abuse to define them. Will the Minister consider bringing forward what is known as Sammy’s law, which would give CSE victims the right to have their criminal records automatically reviewed, and crimes associated with their grooming removed? At present, anyone has the right to apply to the chief constable of their force area to have their records reviewed, but it is little known. Surely there must be a specific case in those circumstances.
Child sexual exploitation is fundamentally about an imbalance of power that is used to coerce, manipulate and deceive. It leads many victims to commit crimes relating to their exploitation. I know the Minister will agree that it cannot be right that victims are forced to live with the consequences of their exploitation for the rest of their lives.
I thank the hon. Lady for her urgent question. She knows, because we have discussed the issue behind the scenes on many occasions, the concerns, feelings and sympathy that the Home Secretary and I have for victims of child sexual exploitation and abuse, and that this Government have done more than any other to tackle it. By setting up institutions such as the independent inquiry into child sexual abuse, the Prime Minister, when she was Home Secretary, sought to uncover these terrible hidden crimes. We know of the experience in Rotherham, of course, and I note that the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) is in her place. I have seen for myself the vital local work to support victims and bring the perpetrators of these terrible crimes to justice.
I am afraid that I am not able to comment on individual cases at this moment—it is a matter of timing—but the Government are considering the Supreme Court judgment very carefully. Sadly, I am not in a position to comment on other aspects of the urgent question, but we have, I think, acknowledged as a society that when children initially present as suspects, the police and others must ask questions to see whether there is more to the picture. I am sure that we all agree on that, and I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to reiterate it.
This case, the details of which we are very carefully not discussing today, is particularly horrific. Does the Minister agree that the issue with child criminal records goes much wider than CSE? I urge her to read, if she has not already, the Justice Committee’s excellent report on the subject, and to meet me and a group of cross-party colleagues, as well as the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood (Edward Argar), in the near future to discuss how we can deal with these issues as a matter of urgency.
My hon. Friend feels—and, in fairness, has campaigned—strongly on this subject. I have read the report. She will appreciate that given the timing, I am constrained in what I can say, but I would be very happy to meet her. I should have said in my initial answer that I had the privilege of meeting Ms Woodhouse last year; she described to me in great detail her experiences as a child, and their impact on her as an adult. I very much valued the time she gave for that meeting. I look forward to meeting my hon. Friend and others to discuss their views on the disclosure regime, and any submissions that they wish to make to Ministers.
Sammy Woodhouse is to be commended for her courage and fortitude. Her campaign reminds us of the complex nature of child sexual abuse and its long-lasting consequences. She makes a very important point when she says that fear of being prosecuted may prevent victims from coming forward, and that criminal records may prevent survivors from moving on with their life.
Conscious of your warning, Mr Speaker, I will not say anything about the case in hand, but I point out that my colleagues in the Scottish Government are committed to preventing and tackling child sex abuse through a range of actions. Of course, grooming is a major issue; Police Scotland has emphasised that it is important that children should not be deterred from coming forward by a fear of having broken the law, and I know that the Minister will agree. In Scotland yesterday, Police Scotland launched the Stop it Now! campaign, which aims to drive home the message that the online grooming of children and young people is illegal and causes huge harm. This is one of the many areas where we really need to drive home the message that it is illegal for adults to have sexual conversations, online or offline, with young people. Does the Minister agree with the aims of the campaign to stop online and offline grooming in Scotland, and will she pledge her support for it?
I thank the hon. and learned Lady for her question. As she knows, we are very keen to work with colleagues across the United Kingdom, and to learn from best practice. I am pleased to hear of that campaign. With the help of the Mayor of London, we recently invested in a child house in London. I visited it recently; it is an amazing facility. Anyone who has worked with child victims—I know that several colleagues in the House have—will agree that the child house is a real step forward in making children feel comfortable in giving evidence, and in achieving the best evidence on behalf of those children. I am keen to see what more can be done in that area.
I am conscious that what is illegal online is just as important as what is illegal offline. The hon. and learned Lady will know the Home Secretary’s personal commitment to ensuring that industry’s response matches our expectations. That response should include a range of actions, such as stopping child grooming from taking place on companies’ platforms, building artificial intelligence to stop this material getting on to the web, and having much greater openness and transparency about how they are clearing out their backyard. Of course, the online harms White Paper is coming up as well, and I am sure that many colleagues will take a great interest in it.
Huge progress has been made since the Government’s CSE action plan, introduced back in 2011—even before the Savile revelations. It was based on encouraging victims to come forward and not regard CSE as being in some way their fault, and also on making sure that agencies did not try to sweep it under the carpet and were not in denial about cultural sensitivities—and even on making sure that they did not feel that children had brought this on themselves. What ongoing links does the Department have with survivors and victims of CSE? Are there facilities for those victims to meet and help educate judges, so that we can make sure that victims continue to be recognised as such, and not as being perpetrators in some way, and get the ongoing recognition and support that they desperately need?
I thank my hon. Friend. I note the work that he did as children’s Minister to bring about justice for these victims. The Home Office and I personally meet victims of historical and more recent child sexual abuse; I see it as an absolute privilege, and it is an essential part of my role. He is absolutely right that this is about not just law enforcement, but multi-agency working. There have been steps forward in improving that. For example, one of the reasons why we amended the Data Protection Act 1998 last year was to include a clause making it clear that professionals can share data to safeguard vulnerable people, including children, so that if they are worried about a child or vulnerable person, they can be confident that they absolutely must share data with other agencies that may have a role to play.
As for our ongoing work, we continue to fund targeted support for victims of child sexual exploitation and abuse. The police transformation fund, which helped to fund the child house, is another source of support for innovative projects that can help improve our response to this terrible crime.
Can the Minister tell the House what analysis has been done on the impact that police cuts have had on bringing the perpetrators of CSE to justice?
The hon. Lady may be aware that we have set up the centre of expertise on child sexual abuse, which is undertaking groundbreaking work on the various typologies of child sexual offending—online, as much as offline, offending. We anticipate that that work will help police forces to address the many challenges that they face in investigating recent and historical examples of child sexual exploitation. We know that the criminal justice system has faced a particular challenge in bringing historical offenders to justice. I am very proud of the work that the police do to investigate historical child sexual abuse, and of the work that the criminal justice system does as a whole to give justice to those victims, but of course I accept that there is always more that can be done.
There should be no place for child sexual exploitation in our society. Will the Minister give us an update on how the police transformation fund is effecting real change in the way that police investigate crimes involving vulnerable young people?
The police transformation fund helps to fund innovative projects such as the child house, but also wider work across policing. The College of Policing has updated its guidance to make the point that children who, at first glance, appear to be suspects must be looked into to ensure that they themselves are not in fact victims.
With children’s services having faced a 49% cut in their early intervention funding, will the Minister explain how she thinks we will be able to intervene at an early stage to spot and rescue young people at risk?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question. As I have said, we are investing in innovative projects through the police transformation fund, which will help. The point of the child house is that it brings together all the agencies that may be able to help to look after a child. There is also a great deal of work going on in policing to ensure that children are intervened on before harm happens, and this includes helping to fund regional organised crime units to increase the undercover online capability, which we know is being used to target the online grooming of children.
The victims of child sexual exploitation have the ability to choose taken away from them in so many aspects of their lives, including with regard to behaviour that can potentially lead to them picking up offences. Does the Minister agree that it is important to promote the ways in which such situations can currently be reviewed, pending the introduction of a system that could help take away the lifetime legacy of offences that those victims did not really have freedom of choice about committing?
My hon. Friend puts it most eloquently. This is, of course, something that we will be very much taking into account as we look at the judgment of the Supreme Court and any other ongoing judgments as well.
Unfortunately, once again, the Minister’s response is the same as the one that we get from the Home Office, which is that it is for the employer to decide, and frankly that is just not good enough. It shows a failure in the Home Office to recognise the fundamental flaws both in the policy and implementation of the disclosure and barring scheme. We must allow people, particularly victims of CSE, to rebuild their lives. Why will she not dump the dogma and sort out the faulty DBS before it blights even more lives?
I know that the right hon. Gentleman has a long history of campaigning on this matter, and he asked me about the system recently in Home Office questions. I remind him gently that the Supreme Court found that it was a coherent scheme of legislation. We are considering that judgment very carefully, because, of course, we must balance the rights of the individual against the rights of wider society in safeguarding the most vulnerable people in our communities.
It is clearly evident that, as part of their grooming, children are coerced into getting criminal records, whether through child sexual exploitation or drugs and gangs. That has the desired effect in that it prevents the children from going to the police, but it also damages for life their employment and, most perversely, their likelihood of getting compensation from the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority. Will the Minister please give guidance to the police, the judges and the Crown Prosecution Service to consider holistically that, when a child is presented with a criminal activity, it could be part of grooming?
I remember being incredibly moved, but also impressed, by the work of the hon. Lady’s local police and safeguarding teams when I visited her constituency last year. The fact that the College of Policing guidance has been updated and improved to reflect the situation that she has described will have an impact on law enforcement, but of course, yet again, we ask all agencies to work together to ensure that these children are intervened on before real harm is committed.
Given that the High Court judges have already ruled that CSE victims’ convictions are unjust, and that any link between past offending and current risk is either non-existent or tenuous, does the Minister think that we should ask some form of independent commission to advise the House on whether there needs to be a change in the law or regulations?
I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman was in his seat when Mr Speaker said that this case is sub judice, so I cannot comment at this point. On the wider point about an inquiry, he will know that the independent inquiry on child sexual abuse was set up precisely to lift the stones on this terrifying and terrible subset of crime. There are all sorts of strands of work going on through that inquiry at the moment. We are considering with great care the reports that have been submitted already, with a view to not just Government but the whole of society looking at where these problems exist.
Only a month ago, 55 men were arrested in Batley and Spen for historical child sexual exploitation. The women who came forward are, of course, absolutely amazing. They are spectacular people with great courage. My concern is that this case is in the papers and in the House. Will that be a block to other young women in Kirklees and more widely across the country coming forward, as they will be scared about being treated like criminals? They are scared that, when they have their own children and want to contribute to society and join charities, parent-teachers associations or whatever, they will be treated like criminals. That cannot be fair.
I cannot comment on the specific case that the hon. Lady has raised. She makes an important general point about the way that we treat victims as they come forward. The criminal justice system has improved in the way that it looks after victims in the course of giving their evidence. Special measures can also be put in place, but, as always, if colleagues are aware of cases where the court system is not applying the rules as carefully as it should, they should please let me or Justice Ministers know. We are very keen that when victims are giving evidence, we do right by them and treat them fairly in the court process.
Girls and vulnerable young women in Newcastle suffered horrendous sexual abuse, rape and exploitation and yet found the courage to work with the police and social services to bring perpetrators to justice. As we have heard, the consequences can last a lifetime, and the support that we offer them should last a lifetime, too—I am talking about the kind of support that is provided by the sexual exploitation hub in Newcastle, for example. I know that the Minister recognises that and knows that we are talking about decades, not simply months, of support. What funding is available to provide support so that these victims can rebuild their lives and have the futures that they deserve?
The hon. Lady has raised this with me, and the project that she mentions is doing great work in the north-east. We do have a stream of funding mechanisms, which I am very happy to discuss with her afterwards, but she is right to say that historic child sexual abuse has not just an impact in the immediate term, but emotional, mental and physical consequences for many, many years afterwards. We must find a way of supporting victims in the longer term as well as in the short term.
Last, but not least, and never forgotten, Mr John Mann.
There is a handful of people whose views should be forgotten, and that is that increasing number of commentators and politicians who suggest that this is a waste of money. I have dealt pretty much every week, and certainly every month over the past five years, with those who have survived this abuse, and that includes this week. I can tell the Minister that this question of criminality, with its impact in respect of custody, housing and employment, but also in respect of ongoing reputation for those who have managed to move on in their lives, is fundamental to why the vast majority of people affected have not come forward, despite the fact that I represented more than 30 during the three weeks of the Nottinghamshire inquiry. As all these issues have been aired during the inquiry in huge detail, will the Minister give a guarantee that the recommendations, when they come forward from this inquiry, will be implemented lock, stock and barrel by the Government?
The hon. Gentleman has put his finger on the fact that what is important is not only how the criminal justice system and other agencies react to this issue, but how we in this place react to it. The choice of language that we use is vital, and I want to make it absolutely clear that it is the policy of this Government that we will always be on the side of the victims of child sexual abuse, and we will always seek to secure justice for them.
Clydesdale Bank and SMEs
Before I call the hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley) to ask her urgent question and the Economic Secretary to the Treasury to respond, I must again advise Members that, under the terms of the House’s resolution on matters sub judice, they should not refer to specific cases that are currently subject to legal proceedings; Members may of course speak to the general issues.
(Urgent Question): To ask the Economic Secretary to the Treasury if he will make a statement on Clydesdale Bank’s treatment of small and medium-sized enterprises.
The Government are committed to ensuring a strong, diverse and dynamic economy, where small businesses can access the credit they require in order to prosper and grow. As such, we expect the highest standards of behaviour across the financial sector, which is why a number of necessary changes have been introduced to restore public trust in financial services, such as the senior managers and certification regime. Although it would be inappropriate for me to intervene in individual cases, particularly when they are subject to ongoing legal proceedings, we must always remember the human element to each case. That is why the Government have been consistently clear that, where there has been inappropriate treatment of SMEs by their bank, it is vital that those businesses can resolve their disputes and obtain fair redress.
At the Budget last autumn, the Government set out their support for the Financial Conduct Authority’s plans to expand eligibility to complain to the Financial Ombudsman Service to small businesses and micro- enterprises. This will ensure that, from 1 April 2019, well over 99% of all UK businesses will have access to fast, free and fair dispute resolution. The Government have also been clear that banks need to work hard to restore businesses’ trust in their institutions, and have welcomed the banking industry’s commitment to establish two independent voluntary ombudsman schemes to resolve SME disputes.
I am extremely pleased that last week my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) agreed to sit on the steering group responsible for implementing these schemes, alongside Nikki Turner from the SME Alliance. That follows several months of intense engagement with the all-party parliamentary group on fair business banking. Although eligibility for the scheme to address historical complaints will need to be determined on a case-by-case basis, I encourage all SMEs that believe that they are eligible to apply once the scheme is up and running in September.
I am pleased that the sale of loan portfolios to third parties is now covered by the standards of lending practice—overseen by the Lending Standards Board—to which Clydesdale is a signatory. That means that it is now committed to ensuring that third parties that buy loans have demonstrated that customers will be treated fairly, and to allowing customers to complain to the original lender if there is a dispute that cannot be resolved. I can also confirm that Andrew Bailey of the FCA has spoken to Clydesdale about the case in question.
The Government are not complacent about this serious matter. We will monitor the implementation of these new or expanded dispute resolution schemes, and we will continue to remind banks of the importance of restoring SMEs’ trust in them.
I asked for this statement on Clydesdale Bank’s treatment of SMEs in the light of my constituent John Guidi’s hunger strike in protest at his treatment by Clydesdale Bank and Cerberus Capital Management. I am aware that aspects of Mr Guidi’s case are sub judice, so I do not intend to refer to the specifics in any way that would prejudice the case.
In 1998, John Guidi built a business in the west of Scotland with a portfolio of almost 150 properties. Clydesdale Bank backed that business from the very beginning. Mr Guidi has told me that he was treated by bank chiefs as “a model customer”, and in only 15 years he built a property business worth £16 million. He never missed a payment, was in regular communication with bank bosses and appeared to have a great relationship with the organisation.
My constituent informed me that Clydesdale Bank changed the structure of his loans in 2002, introducing him to the tailored business loan. In 2014, Clydesdale Bank sold its tailored business loans to Cerberus Capital Management—an American private equity business. Mr Guidi says that this organisation aggressively pursued the debt and subsequently put his company into receivership a few months after purchase. As a result of my constituent signing a guarantee, he has personally been made bankrupt, and the company is pursuing his family home. He only has a few weeks before he is evicted and has taken the decision to start a hunger strike in protest.
This tragic case brings attention to the vulnerability of UK businesses to abusive treatment by lenders and vulture funds, and the inadequacy of current regulation in preventing it. Sadly, John is not alone. There are hundreds of people across the UK whose tailored business loans were sold by Clydesdale Bank to Cerberus Capital Management. Since 2010, Cerberus has acquired more than 1.2 million distressed or non-performing loans, worth more than $80 billion. Simply put, Cerberus is the world’s largest debt collector.
As we all know, so-called distressed loans are often anything but. Since the banking crisis of 2008, we have seen a sorry catalogue of thousands of instances in which banks have forced legitimate borrowers into distress through no fault of their own, and because loans to SMEs are not regulated properly, the customers have little or no redress. John now finds himself in that category. All he wants is a fair say before he loses his family home. He has requested that his case go to an independent arbitrator for a review.
Will the Minister join me in calling on both Clydesdale Bank and Cerberus to engage with my constituent urgently, and will he meet John to discuss how the lack of regulation in the banking industry has destroyed his business? Finally, is now not the time to pursue an independent financial tribunal to ensure that my constituent can receive adequate remedy from the dispute resolution of his case?
I thank the hon. Lady for her points, and I will try to address them all. The decision to develop the dispute resolution service was taken carefully, after a lot of engagement with the industry. I am obviously aware of the press coverage around the case and of the extremely difficult circumstances faced by her constituent. I understand that enforcement action is currently on hold as legal proceedings have been brought against Clydesdale and Cerberus. I also understand that Clydesdale and Cerberus have offered to meet Mr Guidi.
The hon. Lady raises a number of points about a preferred alternative mechanism for resolving such situations. It is common across all jurisdictions for banks to sell off parts of their portfolio of debt at times. The question becomes what the appropriate mechanisms and safeguards are in those cases. The sale of debts to third parties is covered under the standards of lending practice, to which Clydesdale is a signatory. That means that it is committed to ensuring that third parties that buy loans have demonstrated that customers will be treated fairly, and to allowing customers to complain to the original lender if there is a dispute between the business and the third party that cannot be resolved.
I am very happy to meet the hon. Lady to go through the full extent of her outstanding concerns on the matter. I take the issue and this case very seriously.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley) on raising this urgent question. As somebody who was involved with the all-party parliamentary group on fair business banking back in 2012 and 2013, the fact that we are still talking about businesses sold TBLs who have not received redress is somewhat shameful. I appreciate the very constructive comments made by the Minister. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) on his work as chairman of the all-party group. Is it not the case that these issues could have been resolved much earlier if, for example, the FCA had included TBLs in its original redress scheme, and would that not have resolved some of the issues now being faced by constituents of Members across this House?
I acknowledge my hon. Friend’s long-standing efforts in this area. Before I was a Minister, I was a member of that APPG. The whole range of dispute resolution mechanisms that have taken place over the past 10 years all seem to have a very different story. As the Minister responsible, I was keen to ensure that we had a meaningful historical redress mechanism that would give discretion for the banks to examine these individual cases. I was also very keen that this House should be represented on that group. That is why having my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton, with representatives from the SME Alliance, involved will allow full scrutiny of all the cases that have not been resolved adequately.
I thank the hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley) for securing this urgent question and for being a firm advocate on behalf of her constituent.
All people and all businesses in the UK deserve a mechanism that provides them with access to justice in the event that they end up in dispute with their financial services provider. Under your guidance, Mr Speaker, I will not comment on the specifics of the Guidi case. However, as many Members are aware, the issue of redress for SMEs against banks and other financial services providers is one that we have discussed in this place many times. At present, too many businesses are caught between the threshold for using the Financial Ombudsman Service and the cost and difficulty of using the full legal process to pursue a claim. So this issue is about more than just one case.
We must take decisive action to draw a line under historical cases like these, as well as ensuring that we have an adequate system of redress going forward. If we do not, then we have no hope of restoring the trust and confidence in business banking that this country so desperately needs. The debates that we have held so far have revealed a substantial coalition across the House for a full tribunal system, alongside a historical case review, that would look again at cases that have been settled by internal bank review processes. The Labour party, the Scottish National party, the Liberal Democrats, the Democratic Unionist party and many individual Conservative MPs certainly hold that view; it is only the Government who do not.
I therefore have some questions for the Minister. First, do the Government agree with the Opposition that where there is evidence from complainants, the historical review process should be willing to consider cases going back to 2000? At present, only those going back to 2008 would be eligible. Secondly, are the Government willing to reconsider their view on the establishment of an independent tribunal system for dispute resolution in order to level the playing field between businesses and their banks? Thirdly, have the Government listened to those people arguing that the expansion of the ombudsman service alone will not solve the problem, as it does not have sufficient resource and capacity to get to the root of the problem, and the mooted compensation cap by the Government looks far too low?
Most of all, do the Government acknowledge that MPs want to see some real action and progress on this? It is disappointing that despite many hours of parliamentary debate and consensus on what must happen next, with agreement stretching across the Treasury Committee, the Opposition, the Financial Conduct Authority, the major banks themselves, such as TSB and Metro, and the all-party parliamentary group on fair business banking, the Government are still reluctant to join this consensus. We all want to be able to tell our constituents that these issues are resolved and simply will not be allowed to happen again.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. I always listen very carefully to the constructive way that he presents his case.
Let me address the hon. Gentleman’s three core questions. First, the historical review process has been as set out, but there is discretion within that. I know that there will be a lively discussion at the first board meeting about how the handling of past cases will be considered. In terms of the disputes over how to resolve this, the role of the Financial Ombudsman Service is being expanded. Its representatives were in Parliament last week offering access to colleagues across the House, and I have visited them to examine what they are doing to recruit the extra resources needed to deal with this extra category. I think that this will work; I would not have made the decision otherwise. The other key consideration I have to balance is about the rapidity and efficiency with which the vast majority of cases—we are talking about 99% of businesses with a turnover of up to £6.5 million—will be able to get a resolution. That is why I think that the ombudsman service is the right way to go forward.
I thank the Minister for all the work he has done in this area. I do feel that we are making progress, but, understandably, the jury is out until we get to the place we need to be. I also thank the hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley) for tabling such an important question today. There are many issues with this. The case concerned follows a typical pattern. Over 10,000 of these tailored business loans were sold to businesses. It may be impossible for these businesses to refinance because of the exit fees. Personal guarantees were then required, and finance was withdrawn despite the fact that the businesses had never missed a payment. The FCA has looked at this and has said that these cases should be considered by the new dispute resolution scheme, which is good news for many people. I ask the Minister to impress on UK Finance that it makes sure that it suspends any proceedings in any of these cases until they have been reviewed.
Again, I thank my hon. Friend for the work he has done in this area. I met representatives of UK Finance just a few hours ago, and I am aware of his correspondence overnight on this issue as he joins the board imminently. The key concern I would have is the extrapolation of one case, or a few celebrated cases—tragic cases—to say that they are normative of practices across the sector as a whole. He smiles because he knows that is a conversation we have had frequently. This historical dispute resolution mechanism is not designed as some sop, but as a meaningful mechanism to interrogate wrongdoing in the past and seek resolution for those individuals who remain dissatisfied.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley) on securing this urgent question.
The issue of transferring funds to an organisation like Cerberus is far from the only issue there has been around this. The hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) mentioned businesses that did not have any issues in relation to debt whose loans were restructured and who were offered incredibly high and arbitrary repayment terms with incredibly high interest rates. That was completely inappropriate. The restructuring of debt should be tackled in the first place, and not just the transferring over. Nobody should be in the situation in which my hon. Friend’s constituent found himself.
The Minister said that these cases are not necessarily indicative of everybody being treated like this, but we have seen enough of them coming forward, and enough people losing their homes, losing their families, and, in some cases, losing their lives as a result. We know as parliamentarians that we see only the tip of the iceberg of cases come into our offices, and that there are probably many, many more that we have not seen and have not raised here.
It is clear from cases like the one that my hon. Friend describes that any system of voluntary redress is not working, and is probably not working in many of the cases that we see coming into our offices. I am concerned that the issue with voluntary redress schemes will also happen with the ombudsman scheme given that it is voluntary and not as all-encompassing as it could be. The Government can still take action and save face on this. What the Minister has said about the ombudsman system is interesting, but it is not the independent tribunal that we on the fair business banking APPG have been calling for. It does not go far enough on that basis.
The other thing that the Government have failed to do so far is to bring forward a massive, comprehensive review of banking culture to ensure that nothing like this happens again in future and we know that SMEs will not be treated in the same way as they were previously. It is incredibly important for our economy that SMEs can borrow, and they will not be able to do so if they do not trust the banking sector to treat them fairly. If the Government have to step in and ensure that this happens, then that is what needs to happen.
I thank the hon. Lady for her comments. There are two things there, and one is the adequacy of the voluntary mechanism. To be fair, it is unclear how it will play out, because it has only just been established. I see from my engagement with the chief executives and chairmen of the banks a massive desire to ensure that this has teeth and can deliver. This is not about the Government saving face. It is about ensuring that this process is effective. I will have deep engagement with and take a close interest in this process, because it must be effective and thorough in its examination of these cases.
I take the wider point that the hon. Lady makes about banking culture. A lot has changed in the last 10 years, and many of these cases happened before that. We now have a very different regulatory environment, with the Prudential Regulation Authority and the FCA, which has changed things considerably, but I will reflect carefully on her comments.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley) on securing this urgent question. I had the opportunity recently to meet her constituent John Guidi, and I express my strongest concern for his welfare. Does the Minister accept that just one such example makes the case for introducing a financial services tribunal, to allow business owners to challenge financial institutions and have confidence that they will always be treated on the basis of fair play and justice?
I have extreme sympathy for everyone who has had the sort of experience that this constituent has had, but I do not think it is right for any Government to make policy on the basis of one case. It is incumbent on Government to set out a framework and a policy that will deliver real answers to complex questions. I do not accept that the regulation of bank lending would be a good step forward. I understand the argument that it would give certainty to small businesses, but my view is that it would discourage a lot of lending, because there would not be the same appetite for lending if that regulation was as onerous as it would likely be.
I join others in congratulating the hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley) on securing this important urgent question. We license and regulate banks to protect customers and because our economy requires SMEs to work as well as they do, but we also need to level the playing field of power between banks, SMEs and individual customers. There is overwhelming evidence that the banks have abused their position of power in the past. If I was at my most sympathetic, I would say that trust in the banking system is at breaking point. I actually fear we have gone beyond that. Is the Financial Conduct Authority really the answer to this, or has the time not come to have a financial services tribunal that SMEs, individual customers and banks can trust to resolve these problems, so that we can move forward?
I have listened carefully to the hon. Gentleman a number of times. As I have said to him previously, we need an effective mechanism that small businesses can get reliable and efficient access to and answers from. I have seen the investment that has gone into the expanded provisions of the ombudsman service. I know that he is not convinced, but this matter is not set in stone forever. Obviously the service needs to deliver. In my conversations with the chief executive of the ombudsman service, as in my conversations with UK Finance and the chief executive of every bank, I have said that this is the top priority in this area of my portfolio.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question. I have met too many individuals in my constituency who ran serious, sensible businesses and were a model in their borrowing but whose lives have been ruined by the behaviour of unscrupulous banks. Thank you for giving us the opportunity to air this on the Floor of the House.
I understand from my constituent Ian Lightbody that, despite the tireless efforts of him and his CYBG Remediation Support Group, they have not had the courtesy of a response from the CEO and chairman of CYBG, which sums up the complete contempt and disregard of Clydesdale Bank’s senior management for small business owners. Will the Minister join me in demanding that the bank, as a first step, shows some courtesy to these individuals and at least engages with them?
Yes. I am happy to take up the case of Mr Lightbody and ensure that he gets a conversation with the right people.
It is not just in calling for a financial services tribunal that the Treasury Committee has joined the consensus. We have also echoed the concern, based on widespread evidence we received, that the regulatory perimeter needs to be looked at in respect of commercial lending. We urged the Government not to adopt a “wait and see” approach. Having looked at the Government’s response to our inquiry into SME lending and listened to the Minister this afternoon, I think the Government do indeed appear to be taking a “wait and see” approach. When will we see more concrete action to give all business owners the confidence they need that, whenever malpractice occurs—it does occur, and it is too widespread—they will see justice and accountability?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. I have set out the expanded remit and role of the ombudsman service and the extension of the money that can be provided. I have also set out the engagement I have had with UK Finance on historical cases. I respectfully say to him that these are very early days—it is only two months since this decision was made, and I look forward to seeing urgent progress.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley) on asking this important question. Along with effective dispute resolution, a properly functioning banking and financial services sector that commands the trust of the British people relies on brave individuals who are prepared to blow the whistle on wrongdoing within the institutions where they work. Does the Minister agree that it has become increasingly clear that we need enhanced protection so that people feel able to speak out and a regulator that is prepared to stand up for, support and protect whistleblowers when the going gets tough?
I recognise that we need in the Financial Conduct Authority and the PRA regulators that are able to take appropriate action in a timely way to deal with disputes where they have responsibility. I have regular conversations with the FCA and encourage it to look at different matters. I will obviously be concerned about how the expanded ombudsman service and the redress mechanism work, and nothing is ruled out in the future.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley) on securing this important urgent question. Like many Members, I have constituents whose businesses were successful and would not have gone under had the banks not mistreated them. Does the Minister agree that the FCA should issue strict guidance that the banks should not destroy any documentation relative to ongoing disputes before the historical compensation scheme is established, and if they do so, they should be sanctioned?
The hon. and learned Lady makes a reasonable point. It would be perverse to shred relevant materials in the context of a provision that they have entered into freely, showing a lot of good will, to try to find resolution and get to a better point of trust between the public and themselves.
This is not just about one case. The description that the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) gave of the sale of tailored business loans is identical to the case of my constituent. Furthermore, that constituent has clear, documented and contemporaneous evidence of deliberate false representation by the bank to the Treasury Committee, the Financial Ombudsman Service and the FCA. I venture to say to the Minister, for whom I have a lot of respect, that this is widespread across the banking sector. We have seen the activities of the Royal Bank of Scotland Global Restructuring Group in attacking SMEs. Much as I support the idea of a tribunal, surely now is the time to go further and have a full public inquiry into the character of banking.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. The key issue for many of these people, who have been waiting for a very long time—sometimes up to 10 or 11 years and longer—is to make sure they can get access to a mechanism that interrogates the evidence and deals with it swiftly. I was not indicating to my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) that we should not say there are not parallels or themes, but I just feel that we have to look at the evidence on a case-by-case basis. I am certain that there is good will in the dispute resolution mechanism to interrogate thoroughly past cases that are unresolved.
We acknowledge the work that the Government have done to date, and the point the Minister made about the need to strike a balance between banks being able and encouraged to lend and, at the same time, meeting the interests of their customers. Does he agree with me that an equally important balance is that between powerful financial institutions that have all the resources—and sometimes the resources of the state—behind them and small businesses that have been damaged economically by the actions of those banks and very often do not have the resources to fight back? Despite all the measures undertaken, 10 years down the line many are still seeking redress, still finding themselves blocked by the actions of the banks and now, ahead of the historical compensation scheme coming in, finding themselves forced into the courts and perhaps having their cases dealt with before the scheme comes in. Does he not agree that now is the time for an independent financial services tribunal, and for the FCA to make it clear to the banks that, ahead of the historical compensation scheme coming in, no further court action should be taken against individuals?
I believe the dispute resolution service that has been set up gives the scope to go back over 10 years of disputed cases, and there is a desire to provide quick access. As the right hon. Gentleman points out, some of these cases have been going on for far too long. The situation is that the banks were in a very bad place with respect to the power they wielded over individuals and small businesses. They want to sort this out, and that is why they have engaged constructively in the construction of this dispute resolution service.
Like other Members who have spoken, I have a number of constituents whose businesses were ruined by the actions of the banks. I think this is a much larger-scale problem than the Minister perhaps implied in some of his earlier answers. It is about an imbalance of power in the relationship between the banks and their customers. The banks have had years to provide redress and they have had years of a voluntary system in that regard, so how is a new voluntary tribunal system going to provide the redress the banks need to provide? Surely the time will come when the Minister will need to make this a mandatory system to provide the justice needed by small business customers who were ruined?
We have not in recent times had a system set up to give quick access in relation to disputes over the past 10 years, and my concern was to provide something that is effective and deals with all the issues that have been raised over the time I have been in office.
Given the personal cost of this—destroyed businesses, personal bankruptcy, mental health pressures, suicide and now a hunger strike—many of these people will not have the ability or the stomach for a historical review. Moving forward, may I tell the Minister that there is little confidence, including from the Treasury Committee, that the FOS has the ability, capacity or expertise to do the work it has been asked to do? I hope the Minister will listen—I am sure he will—to those in all parts of this House who are saying there is now an unanswerable argument for an independent financial services tribunal.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question, and I have responded to I think nine debates in this Chamber and in Westminster Hall on this matter. I am very aware of the pitch and the breadth of concern that exists on this matter and the urgency in getting some outcomes that actually deliver for our constituents, and I will continue to work towards that aim.
I think the hon. Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) hit the nail on the head. Let me give the House an example. A couple of years ago, when the Clydesdale proposed to shut its branch in my home town of Tain, I had a meeting with it and representatives of a highly successful local fish-processing business, and the Clydesdale was at pains to say, “Yes, we’re going to shut the branch, but you can use the post office locally.” Well, a fat lot of good that was, because the post office was too small, and I have raised that several times in this House. Now, in the next few days, that post office is going to close, and we will have no Clydesdale branch and no Royal Bank of Scotland branch in my home town. What good is that to SMEs? It is useless for business. I back the hon. Gentleman all the way: the time has come for a full inquiry into these banks, which, in my opinion, are completely out of control.
As has been discussed in numerous debates, the changing face of the high street bank causes considerable concern for our constituents. We have a protocol in place on the relationship with the Post Office and, from memory, I think something like 97% of people in this country live within three miles of and have access to a post office. I think the hon. Gentleman needs—
Not in my constituency.
The hon. Gentleman needs to reflect on the fact that there will not be a one-size-fits-all approach across the whole of the United Kingdom, and the banks are willing to look at individual solutions in different circumstances. I would be very happy to meet him to discuss that further.
There is probably no more appropriate Member to have raised this than my hon. Friend the Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley) because, as Members will appreciate, Clydesdale is in fact the historical name for a great part of the constituency that she represents.
Does the Minister accept that no form of redress can ever be good enough once a business has gone bust and the owners of the business and their families have been put through 10 years or more of hell? What assurances can he give us that any future scheme of redress will become active and effective when there is still time to save businesses that, in the vast majority of cases, have operated lawfully within the rules and have been successful businesses? These businesses would not have been targeted if they had not been successful.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question. He expresses exactly why I think it is so urgent that we get on and get the banks to engage in this historical dispute resolution mechanism and look at the detail, so that they are in a position to give compensation urgently. People have been waiting too long, and where such evidence exists, the banks need to respond appropriately and swiftly.
First, I thank the Minister for his response on these issues. As he knows, I have met him on a number of occasions with my constituents to do with their problems, and I just want to put on the record the desperation that they feel. Yesterday, some of them attended the Irish schools— St Patrick’s Day—cup final to protest about Danske Bank, with “Shame on you” on their yellow hi-vis vests to highlight the issue. The Minister quite clearly knows that their story is dreadful—he has seen it—as it all too often involves health issues. When it comes to financial redress, it is compensation we are after. Has the Minister had any opportunity to address the issue of compensation, particularly the issues of the Danske Bank in Northern Ireland, which has false-changed my constituents?
I do not personally have investigative powers, but I do recognise the need to have compensation. That is why we have an increased compensation threshold in the Financial Ombudsman Service, and nothing is ruled out with respect to the resolution mechanism. I would like to acknowledge the work that the hon. Gentleman puts in, and I thank him for his email at 9 am on Boxing day, but I was just surprised he had a day off.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. You will know that once a statement has been made under section 13(4) of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, a Minister of the Crown must make arrangements under subsection (6) for a motion in neutral terms to be moved within the period of seven Commons sitting days, beginning with the day on which the statement is made. As you will be aware, such a statement was made on Friday 15 March, and you will also know that Friday 22 March is a sitting day. Can you therefore confirm that, irrespective of what may emerge from the meeting of the EU Council on 21 and 22 March and what, if any, consequential secondary legislation may be brought to the House thereafter, we will have a stand-alone debate on an amendable motion by Monday 25 March?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order and his characteristic courtesy in giving me advance notice of his intention to raise it. As far as I am aware, his exegesis of the Act is entirely correct. Following the decision of this House not to approve the withdrawal agreement and the framework for the future relationship on Tuesday 12 March, the Government made a written statement on Friday 15 March, as required by section 13(4) of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018. Under section 13(6) of that Act, a Minister must move a motion “in neutral terms” that this House “has considered the matter” of that statement no later than Monday 25 March. According to the order of this House of 4 December, motions in neutral terms under section 13 of the Act are amendable. The motion has been tabled; it is currently item 64 in part B of Future Business. No amendments have been tabled yet.
I am saving the hon. Gentleman. I do not want to squander him too early in our proceedings. That would seem unkind and wasteful.
The right hon. Gentleman is a very learned fellow; we will come to him presently.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Further to your, if I may put it this way, intervention—your ruling, perhaps—yesterday, the Government have today announced, no doubt also in accordance with the motion passed on Thursday, and apparently after a tumultuous Cabinet meeting, that the Prime Minister is writing to Mr Tusk to seek an extension of article 50, but not just, as prescribed in the motion last Thursday, till the end of June, but also for another, much longer period. However, we do not know for how long—apparently the Prime Minister might not have even decided herself—and we certainly do not know for what purpose any extension is being sought.
Mr Speaker, can you help us? Is all that in order, given that nobody has come to this place to tell the House of Commons what is going on, so that we can question, yet again, the purpose of that lengthy extension in particular and how long it will be, but also what this means, given that we are to leave the European Union in 10 days, still with no deal in place? The concern is that the letter is designed to do the very thing that the hon. Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle) mentioned in her comments yesterday, which she has also mentioned on a previous occasion, in reference to the rulings in “Erskine May”, which is, it is believed, to bully, frankly, Conservative Back Benchers into supporting the Prime Minister’s withdrawal agreement, even though they believe that it is against everything they believe in and against their consciences? Could you assist us, Mr Speaker: is all this in order?
I am not aware that anything disorderly has taken place, and I must begin by advising the right hon. Lady that I am not privy to these matters. I know that she is customarily exceptionally well informed, and may well be, for all I know, in this case. One of the reasons why I am not privy to these matters is that I have not been advised of them by Ministers. Another reason why I am naturally not aware is that I have been attending to my duties in the Chair, as colleagues and others would expect, so I do not know whether a letter has been written or is in the process of being written.
What I would say to the right hon. Lady is that of course the motion passed by the House last week on, if memory serves me correctly, 14 March did provide for a potential extension of article 50 application to be made. If memory serves me correctly, the first part of that motion specified that if the withdrawal agreement and future declaration were endorsed by the House by 20 March, the Government would be minded to seek an extension to the end of June—specifically, I think, to 30 June. A later section of that motion raised the possibility of a potentially longer extension being sought, in circumstances in which the House had not by 20 March endorsed the withdrawal agreement and future partnership declaration. I think I remember rightly that that reference to a potentially longer extension in that circumstance did not reference a specific period—and that certainly was not at that point a Government policy proposal—and it did indicate that there was no certainty at all that that would be agreed to by the European Union; and of course, a rationale for such an extension would be needed.
I mention all that because it seems to me that, as things stand, nothing disorderly has taken place. The notion that an application for an extension might be made is not new. It is out there and has been for some time. I am bound to say that if the Government are minded to seek something by way of a written application, one would rather hope that the House would be informed of that. Of course, a successful application would not only require the agreement of the Union; as a consequence—I think the Clerk at the Table has consulted his scholarly cranium and advised me that this is so—it would require the agreement of the House. We will have to see whether in due course that will be sought, but certainly the agreement of the House is a prerequisite to postponing exit day—I am pretty sure about that—and the agreement of the Union would also be required.
Knowing the perspicacity of the right hon. Lady, I feel sure that she will be in her place at later points, today and assuredly tomorrow and on subsequent days, and it is possible—I do not have to look into the crystal ball when I can read the book—that she will leap to her feet with alacrity in order to seek to probe the Executive branch on these important matters. And who knows? She might well be successful in catching the eye of the Chair. I hope that is helpful to her at this early point in the day.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. You have told the House that, under the convention dating from 1604, you would not be prepared to allow the Government to bring back the motion. I make no comment on that; I just mention it by way of introduction. However, we have also heard from the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Matthew Pennycook), that it is likely that under the Act there must be further opportunities for debate, and the motion will be amendable.
I sense that the House wants to come to a conclusion; therefore, this point of order is designed to try to be positive and both follow your ruling, Mr Speaker, and not disagree with it and allow the House to come to a decision. If, as we hear, the Government are applying for an extension, which we are told might be quite lengthy, I would have thought that that was a fundamental change of circumstance, and you have yourself alluded to the fact that an SI would have to be brought to the House to implement that. I therefore wonder whether, if the Government were then to bring forward a motion, that might be a reason and an opportunity for you to make a judgment that that change was sufficiently meaningful to allow you to change your ruling and allow the Government motion to go forward.
There is another way. You may be aware, Mr Speaker, that I have argued for some time that the Government should use the concept of a unilateral declaration, and this has now been laid by the Government. What if the Government were to beef up or change its unilateral declaration, so that the motion that they brought back to the House was substantially different? I mention that as another way forward. I am trying to be helpful, so that we can both be true to your ruling, Mr Speaker, and allow the House to come to a decision as soon as possible, because I for one rather hope that this extension will concentrate the minds of my Brexiteer colleagues.
I am most grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his point of order and for the terms in which, entirely characteristically, he expressed it. There were quite a lot of hypothetical questions there, and he is both something of an intellectual gymnast—I think I am in no danger of contradiction in making that assertion—and a keen student of history, not least the history of his own party. I do not treat his inquiry with levity, but what I say to him is this: I have always thought that there is much merit in the observation frequently proffered by the late Lord Whitelaw. What he said, many a time and oft, was, “For my part, I prefer to cross bridges only when I come to them”—indeed, it might be thought to be somewhat hazardous to make any attempt to do otherwise. I stand by the point about the same or substantially the same proposition not being able to be brought in the same Session. The logical corollary of that is that if a different proposition is brought forward, it is perfectly possible that that can be done in an orderly way—that is to say, without falling foul of “Erskine May”. We will leave it there for now.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. This is a completely different matter, if that is okay. As you know, we all mourn the loss of Paul Flynn, and his funeral is to be in Newport on Friday morning, but because, unusually, we are sitting this Friday for private Members’ Bills, your chaplain has agreed to hold a service in the crypt chapel of St Mary Undercroft at 10.30 am. I wonder whether we might be able to put that on the Order Paper for Friday, so that if anybody wanted to attend, they could come along.
I see absolutely no reason why that should not be done and every reason why it should be. I am deeply obliged to the hon. Gentleman. As he rightly says, this Friday is a sitting day. Many colleagues will be in the Chamber for important private Members’ business and I myself, all being well, will be in the Chair for a significant part of the proceedings. I would otherwise very much have wanted to be at the funeral and I am being represented at the funeral, as I think the hon. Gentleman knows, but I will be here. That service is itself a service—a service to our departed colleague, to his widow Sam and family and to everyone who knew, admired and respected Paul—so let us have it advertised in a rather official way, as the hon. Gentleman suggests.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. On a more practical matter, there are occasions in this House when we have debates that are of a timed length. I am thinking, for example, of statutory instruments that are debated for up to 90 minutes or Standing Order No. 24 debates, for which I believe the time limit is three hours. When we have such timed debates, would it be possible for the annunciator to reflect the start time of the debate, so that hon. Members can see how long has elapsed within that period and how long is remaining?
The debate end time is displayed on the clocks at the table in front of the Clerks. I am sure that we can look at the practicality of that end time being displayed more widely. The proposition advanced by the hon. Gentleman is not only inoffensive, but potentially practical. [Interruption.] And practicable, as has been in no way pedantically pointed out to me.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. We are at a time of unprecedented crisis and time is not quite on our side. The UK is due to leave the European Union next week and the House is sitting on Friday, just as we come to the end of a critical European Council. May I seek your guidance on what scope there may be for Members or for the Government to bring forward a resolution so that the House could sit on Saturday?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his point of order. Colleagues, for the second day running, I am obliged to turn to “Erskine May”—namely, page 309, with which colleagues, I feel sure, will be closely familiar—which states:
“Under Standing Order No 11(6) a sitting on Saturday or Sunday…can be secured only by a resolution of the House, made normally…at the commencement of public business.”
I hope that my reply sates the hon. Gentleman’s curiosity. If there are no further points of order, we will proceed to the ten-minute rule motion, for which the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Lee Rowley) has been very patiently waiting.
Fracking (Seismic Activity)
Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require fracking operators to monitor seismic activity caused by fracking and take steps if such activity exceeds certain levels; and for connected purposes.
It is great to have the opportunity to talk about this issue today. Fracking is a controversial and difficult subject on which people take different views. Often, when fracking is discussed and debated, it is mainly talked about from an environmental perspective. That is an incredibly important part of the discussion, but it is not one that I am going to focus on today.
The part of the fracking debate that, frankly, has been missed in this place and elsewhere relates to its practicality and the practical implications for local communities who are affected by it, or by the exploratory drilling that precedes it, or who could be affected as a result of the drilling licence that is applied. For those communities, a shadow across the landscape is created by the implications for their local area—for the roads and the loss of agricultural fields—and the industrial impact in otherwise heavily rural areas. I wish to introduce the Bill today because of the continuing attempts by the industry, perfectly legitimately, to try to tweak and change some of the regulations that govern fracking and which this place needs to consider much more carefully and closely than it has hitherto.
The question on fracking is where to start, and the best place I can see is with what we as a country are trying to do with fracking. That is not actually that clear. I have put multiple written questions to various Departments over the past few months and have not been able to get a clear objective from the Government. The best that I have been able to get is a written ministerial statement from May last year, when the Government were clear that in their view, fracking offers “potentially substantial benefits” to the United Kingdom, that
“gas has a key part to play”
in our future energy mix and that they believe that
“it is right to utilise our domestic gas resources to the maximum extent”.—[Official Report, 17 May 2018; Vol. 641, c. 16WS.]
If we accept that principle, the logical extension of the argument that the Government are very pro-fracking and wish to push it is one of scale and the impact on the local communities who are affected by that scale.
On scale, the challenge with fracking is that to have any material impact when it comes to replacing the amount of gas that we import from outside the United Kingdom with domestic production, a substantial amount of gas would have to be produced from the various fracking wells that would need to be created. Cardiff Business School did a study on that a number of months ago. People from Cardiff Business School and the industry came to the all-party group on the impact of shale gas a few months ago and debated it. There was genuine consensus that if fracking is to be done at scale in our country, thousands of wells will be needed if there is to be any impact on replacing exports with domestic supply.
The Cardiff Business School report estimated that the number of wells required in the United Kingdom could be anything from 6,000 to in excess of 30,000 wells. All those wells are clustered in relatively small parts of the country—that is, where the petroleum licences are—and those include my part of the world as well as Yorkshire, Lancashire, little parts of Somerset, and Sussex. The logical extension of talking about 6,000 to 30,000-odd wells—on the basis that a well pad contains a number of them—is the involvement of thousands of locations in a relatively small space of time, if fracking is to have any impact on the replacement of gas imports with internal production. In each area, the impact on the local community will be tremendous.
In my community of Marsh Lane, permission for fracking exploration has been granted against its will. It is in the middle of green-belt land in the Derbyshire countryside that has remained substantially unchanged since the enclosure Acts of 1795. As a result of this application’s having been approved, we are faced with a proposal to place a light industrial estate in the middle of an agricultural field that has been used only for agricultural purposes, as far as we can tell, for more than 200 years, with over 10,000 vehicle movements in the exploratory phase alone; a substantial number of bulks, some over 10 metres high, for the entire period it is there; and a 60-metre-high drill rig during the six months it is being set up—all in the middle of green-belt countryside. That is the impact in just one location. Multiply that by over 1,000 locations and the challenge becomes that we risk substantially industrialising the countryside and other parts of this country where petroleum licences have been issued.
On top of the scale and impact problem comes another problem. There is a desire, because fracking has not been successful in the eight years it has been tested, to tweak the rules to make it more palatable in this country. First, the national planning policy framework was changed several months ago in effect to prioritise fracking and other forms of onshore oil and gas production over other elements, which gave great weight to allowing such energy exploration and production irrespective of where it was—whether in green belt, countryside or other locations that otherwise would be completely ignored and considered inappropriate for such development.
Secondly, an attempt was made last year to loosen the planning policy rules around fracking. It was proposed that fracking exploration—that light industrial estate plonked in the green belt in places such as my constituency —be permitted through the same planning policy processes as those for a kitchen extension and that the actual production, which could last up to 25 years, if not longer, be taken out of the hands of local people and put into the nationally significant infrastructure programme, both of which would be entirely inappropriate and take away control from local people over what happens in their local areas.
Then, in the last few months, after the failure of the first attempts to frack in this country for over half a decade—in Preston—the industry came back and said it wanted to change the rules around earthquakes. During that short two-month period in Lancashire when fracking was attempted before Christmas, more than 50 earthquakes were created near Blackpool—admittedly small ones, but earthquakes none the less—despite the fact that they got no further than about 10% of the way through the industrial process of fracking. If we multiply that impact by the thousand or so sites in the country, we see the scale of the problem.
My Bill proposes to limit the ability of fracking to create earthquakes to its current regulatory acceptable limit of 0.5 on the Richter scale. The industry has clearly indicated that it wants the limits raised, but that would be entirely inappropriate. We should limit fracking activity in line with the existing regulations. The industry signed up to those several years ago, and any change to them would bring great anxiety, distress and worry to communities such as mine.
In conclusion, fracking is controversial because it has not worked, because it is not working and because, in my view, it will not work from a practical and a community-based perspective. For that reason, I seek to limit in legislation the ability of seismic activity to take place over and above what the regulations already state.
Question put and agreed to.
That Lee Rowley, Zac Goldsmith, Mr William Wragg, Damien Moore, Mr Simon Clarke, Eddie Hughes, Ben Bradley, Maria Caulfield, Sir Graham Brady, Andrew Lewer and Sir Kevin Barron present the Bill.
Lee Rowley accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 22 March, and to be printed (Bill 359).
Exiting the European Union (Food and Agriculture)
With the leave of the House, we will debate motions 2 to 5 together.
I beg to move,
That the draft Materials and Articles in Contact with Food (Amendment) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019, which were laid before this House on 5 February, be approved.
With this, we shall consider the following motions:
That the draft Genetically Modified Food and Feed (Amendment etc.) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019, which were laid before this House on 4 February, be approved.
That the draft Novel Food (Amendment) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019, which were laid before this House on 4 February, be approved.
That the draft Animal Feed (Amendment) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019, which were laid before this House on 5 February 2019, be approved.
The instruments, which all concern food and feed safety, relate to those substances collectively known as “regulated products” and to animal feed hygiene and marketing. They are made under the powers in the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 to carry out necessary amendments to the overarching food regulations so that those can continue to protect public health from risks that may arise in connection with the consumption of food. These are protections that our constituents would expect us to pass.
As the UK leaves the European Union, the Government remain committed to maintaining the high standards of food and feed safety and consumer protection that we enjoy in this country. As some hon. Members are aware, I have recently presented numerous instruments that will help to deliver a functioning body of food and feed law. I say “some hon. Members” because, by and large, they have been taken upstairs—so I like to think that today is a bit like me moving from BBC2 to the primetime slot on BBC1. The instruments will correct deficiencies in the regulations to ensure that the UK is prepared in the event we leave the EU without an agreement.
As with all the previous statutory instruments I have presented, I wish to make it clear that these instruments make no policy changes and that it is not our intention to make any at the present time. Similarly, they are crucial to maintaining the effective controls and standards that protect public health and consumer interests in relation to regulated products used in and on food and animal feed.
As the Minister knows, in the ceramics industry contact with food is a huge part of the regulations. What assurances can he give to me that I can relay to the industry that should Europe change its own arrangements for contact rates and provisions—in other words, if our regulatory systems diverge—producers in this country that are in line with our regulations could still sell to the EU?
I shall be able to talk in more detail about the ceramics issue, which I can well imagine is of great interest to the hon. Gentleman. However, the point of the regulations is to port across everything that is currently on the EU’s statute book. We have 100% regulatory alignment at this stage, because we are a member state at present; if we have a withdrawal agreement in place, there will of course be a seamless bridge. The purpose of the instruments is to ensure that that seamless bridge comes about regardless.
If, when we are a third country, we as a nation, and this as a sovereign Parliament, decided to make a change to the regulations, we would have to do so with the consent of Members. All the considerations would be taken into account, including the impact on areas such as the one that the hon. Gentleman represents, and I am pretty sure that he would be a very loud voice in any future debate. I hope that that answers his question.
What consultation has there been with the devolved nations?
I ask the hon. Gentleman to bear with me. I will definitely come on to that, in respect of all the SIs.
As I said to the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Gareth Snell), the purpose of the SIs is to ensure that UK domestic legislation that implements directly applicable EU regulations continues to function effectively after exit day. The proposed amendments are critical to ensuring that there is minimal disruption to novel foods, feed additives and other regulated products collectively if we do not reach a deal with the EU.
The first SI, the Materials and Articles in Contact with Food (Amendment) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019—also known as Food Contact Materials—refers to all items that are intended to come into contact with food, both directly and indirectly. They include processing line machinery, transport containers—not vehicles, but the actual containers of food—kitchen equipment, packaging, cutlery as sold and dishes and utensils as sold, and can be made from a variety of materials including metal, paper, plastic, wood, rubber and, indeed, ceramics.
Let me say for the benefit of Members who do not live and breathe these regulations, in the unlikely event that there are any, that specific examples of food contact materials are tin cans for holding baked beans and plastic bottles for holding water. The regulations will ensure that those materials are robust enough to do the job, but safe enough to do it without transferring anything to the foodstuffs.
The instrument is critical in meeting our priority of maintaining after we leave the European Union the very high standards of food safety and consumer protection that we currently enjoy in this country. It will ensure that provisions in four main pieces of EU food contact materials legislation continue to function effectively in the UK after exit day. The first is European Commission regulation 1935/2004, which sets out the framework for all materials and articles intended to come into contact with food. The regulations then become progressively more specific. The second is regulation 10/2011, on plastic materials and articles intended to come into contact with food. The third is regulation 450/2009, on active and intelligent materials and articles intended to come into contact with food. The fourth is regulation 2023/2006, on good manufacturing practice for materials and articles intended to come into contact with food.
The instrument also makes relevant changes to other specific technical pieces of legislation on individual types of food contact material. It will ensure that regulatory controls for food contact materials continue to function effectively after exit day, that public health continues to be protected, and that high standards of food safety are maintained. Consumers must be protected against potential adverse effects of exposure to some substances used in the manufacture of materials and articles that are in contact with the food that we eat. The instrument will ensure that the effectiveness of the controls that we have is maintained.
This instrument, and the other SIs that we are debating today as part of the fourth and final bundle, will transfer responsibilities incumbent on the European Commission from Ministers in the European Council to Ministers in England, Wales and Scotland and the devolved authority in Northern Ireland. It will also transfer responsibility currently incumbent on the European Food Standards Authority to the relevant food safety authority: the Food Standards Agency, for which I hold ministerial responsibility in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and Food Standards Scotland north of the border. The change will also ensure a robust system of control to underpin UK businesses’ ability to trade both domestically and internationally.
Let me now say something about the impact of this instrument on industry. The proposed amendments are expected to have a very minimal impact on businesses that produce or use food contact materials or articles. Existing provisions have received very positive feedback from our previous consultations, and there is no evidence that the changes required will be detrimental to industry. I was asked about the devolved Administrations. They have consented to the instrument. We liaise closely at official level with our opposite numbers, and, as with the instruments that we have already debated, throughout this month we have engaged positively with the devolved Administrations throughout the development of these instruments. Let me place on the record again my thanks to them for their positive engagement with me and my team.
I am pleased by the Minister’s reassurance about the commitment to the extremely high standards of food safety that exist in our country, but will he consider making some improvements as we take on this responsibility in our sovereign Parliament? A number of my constituents are worried about claims that many of the plastic items used to store and protect food are biodegradable or recyclable when that is actually not true. Will the Minister consider improving the current standards in future, so that we can have proper regulation and proper communications about how biodegradable or recyclable plastics really are?
It is good to see my hon. Friend here, but not so good to see her there. She knows what I mean.
Along with the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson), I chaired the all-party parliamentary group on breast cancer for many years. There is definitely talk in the lobbying community about plastics and their impact, and, as the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West knows, pieces of academic work make claims in that respect. Those claims are certainly not proven, and there is a wide range of scientific debate about them.
I take my hon. Friend’s point about biodegradable plastics, but it is not specifically a matter for me. The instruments deal with food standards and food safety. They do not make any degradations in our food safety, but neither do they make any improvements; they are housekeeping measures.
The second SI, the Genetically Modified Food and Feed (Amendment etc.) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019, is also crucial to meeting our objective of ensuring that the current high standards are maintained. It was made under the powers in the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 to make necessary amendments to retained EU genetically modified food and feed law. It will ensure that regulatory controls for GM food and feed continue to function effectively after exit day, and that public and animal health and, crucially public confidence are protected. The EU law governing GM food and feed provides a harmonised regulatory framework, including transparent and time-limited procedures for robust risk assessment and authorisation before these products can be placed on the market, and we believe that those strict controls must be maintained.
Food safety is a critical element in the fight against antimicrobial resistance and the tackling of superbugs. Will my hon. Friend do all that he can to ensure that the UK remains a world leader in this area after we have left the European Union?
I would have been disappointed if my hon. Friend had not raised the subject of antimicrobial resistance. He is ingenious in managing to get it into every debate. He knows of my commitment in that regard, not just domestically but internationally. This country is rightly respected and looked to for its work in the field, and I thank him for putting that on the record.
We have received assurances from the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs that in no way will any of our food standards be lowered as we leave the EU. That is very important to all our constituents, not least the people of Taunton Deane. Will the Minister assure me that we will stick to that, and, indeed, that there might be opportunities to raise our standards so that we are effectively a leader in many areas of the food, farming and animal feed sector?
My hon. Friend makes a good point, and it is an interesting one to bring up at this moment. We have been very clear across Government from the Prime Minister down, including the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Secretary, that we will not lower our standards in pursuit of trade deals as a result of leaving the EU, and that we will use all the tools at our disposal to make sure that standards are protected and we are not therefore left at a competitive advantage. My hon. Friend mentioned the Environment Secretary, who made that point very clearly at the Oxford farming conference, I think earlier this month. That is very much where this House is, and that is very much where I am as Minister responsible for food safety. I hope that is clear.
The law governing GM food and feed provides a harmonised regulatory framework. The authorisation process involves a safety evaluation based on rigorous scrutiny of scientific data by the European Food Safety Authority in line with international guidelines. GM events for use as food and/or feed are authorised by means of individual pieces of legislation. Authorisations are granted for a period of 10 years, which may be renewed if, following assessment of the required renewal data, the previous risk assessment remains valid. The rules also provide for the withdrawal of authorisations in appropriate circumstances.
There are also very clear requirements for the traceability of genetically modified organisms and the labelling of GM food and feed products, and importantly this enables products to be tracked through all stages of the supply chain. So the instrument ensures the continuation of these robust and effective GM food and feed safety labelling controls after we leave the EU.
As was the case with the other SIs, this instrument will make no change to policy beyond the technical amendments necessary, but it assigns powers and responsibilities currently incumbent on EU entities to appropriate UK entities. So I want to be clear that powers to make legislation, and risk management functions currently held by the European Commission to authorise GM food and feed and revoke or modify authorisations, will be assigned to Ministers in England, Wales and Scotland and the devolved authority in Northern Ireland. Those include discretionary powers to set down detailed rules that work for the UK in relation to the UK reference lavatory—laboratory, sorry, not lavatory; that would be strange.
Returning to industry, no changes to the way in which UK food or feed businesses are operated or regulated will arise from this instrument. There will be a continuation of the robust authorisation system I have outlined, the labelling requirements I have touched on, and the controls for GM food and feed that UK industry is familiar with and relies upon. The instrument enables the continued use of GM food and feed authorised in the UK. Again, the devolved Administrations provided their consent for it.
Thirdly, the Novel Food (Amendment) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019 are another instrument to be made under the powers of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018. Novel foods are those that are relatively new or do not have a significant history of consumption in the EU. Those foods must be assessed for safety before they are introduced into the market to ensure that they do not present a risk to public health. This instrument will ensure that the regulation of and controls on novel foods continue to function effectively after exit day and that public health is protected. Anything permitted prior to exit day will be permitted after exit day. The purpose of the instrument—which again makes no policy changes—is to rectify deficiencies in the retained legislation. So foods new to the market are not assumed to be safe; that is where we have decided to place the burden. In the interests of public health the regulations require novel foods to have a pre-market safety assessment to identify whether they pose a risk and how that risk could be managed. The regulations will ensure that the existing levels of public health protection and food safety are maintained.
The EU framework regulation on novel foods is supported by four implementing measures, which provide the detailed rules, data requirements and administrative procedures governing all novel products. This instrument will ensure that provisions in the four main pieces of EU legislation continue to function effectively after we leave. They will correct the following retained EU law: regulation 2015/2283, which is the main framework for regulation on novel foods; regulation 2017/2469, which provides administrative and scientific requirements for the applications; regulation 2017/2468, which provides administrative and scientific requirements concerning traditional foods from third countries, which of course there would be; and regulation 2017/2470, which establishes a Union list of novel foods. Finally, regulation 2018/456 establishes procedural steps for the consultation process to determine the status of novel foods.
I know that food businesses watch these proceedings with interest, and there will be no change in how they are regulated. The instrument will, however, ensure that the robust system of controls that underpins UK businesses’ ability to trade both domestically and internationally continues. Again, we have engaged positively with the devolved Administrations, and we have their consent for this instrument.
Finally, the Animal Feed (Amendment) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019, which concern feed law, are also made under powers in the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018. We are making necessary amendments to the overarching food and feed regulations under the powers in the Act, so that we continue to protect the public. The primary purpose of this instrument is to ensure that feed legislation continues to function effectively. The retained EU legislation on animal feed encompasses requirements relating to feed additives, feed hygiene, sampling—when local authorities do sampling, for instance—marketing, and the use of feed, including labelling.
This instrument will fix the inoperabilities in the retained EU legislation and provide a continuation of the legal requirements that already exist in EU law. These proposed amendments are equally crucial to maintain a functioning statute book and to maintain public safety and confidence. The instrument introduces a number of changes, but the purpose of them is to ensure that the animal feed regulations remain operable after EU exit.
Risk assessment responsibilities, currently incumbent on EFSA, will be assigned to the Food Standards Agency and, again, Food Standards Scotland north of the border, and again, we have had consent from the devolved Administrations.
These four statutory instruments are all necessary to ensure that our legislation relating to food and animal feed safety and hygiene continues to work effectively after EU exit day. No policy changes are being made. I hope the House will support the proposed amendments in these four instruments to ensure that continuation, and I commend them to the House.
I start by thanking the Minister for introducing these statutory instruments on the Floor of the House this afternoon and for summarising them so clearly for us. I would also like to start, as I always do, by putting on record once again my disappointment and concern that there could be as few as 10 days before we leave the EU, yet we are still dealing with crucial legislation concerning our food safety. The Government have run down the clock for more than two years and only now, when the deadline is so close, are we considering important legislation that could impact the public’s health if we do not get it right. Of course, that is because the threat of no deal is still hanging over us. I know that the Minister wants to get this right, which is why I have supported him throughout the discussions on these SIs, but I am still disappointed at the way the Government have handled this.
These statutory instruments will transfer tasks and roles assigned to the European Commission and the European Food Safety Authority to an appropriate UK entity. Will the Minister please confirm who that appropriate UK entity will be? While we are taking these SIs as a group, which I welcome, I would like to raise some concerns about each of them in turn.
I am sure my hon. Friend agrees that this is as much to do with DEFRA as with the Department of Health and Social Care, and it shows why we need a food strategy in this country so that we can sort out some of the nonsense caused by the overlap between different Departments.
I absolutely agree. My hon. Friend makes a good point, and I discussed with the Government and Opposition Whips where responsibility for these SIs fell. There is so much crossover between food and health policy, and we are doing the best we can with the hand we have been dealt, but we should probably look more into this issue going forward.
I do not want to take my hon. Friend off the point too much, but it crossed my mind when I was listening to the Minister—I apologise to him for coming in late— that issues have been raised in the press, certainly recently, about imported food and the use of chlorine to cleanse it. Does my hon. Friend have a view about that?
Yes. The issue of chlorine-washed chicken did come up in some of the SI Committees that were held upstairs, and the Minister assured Committee members that chicken would continue to be washed in fresh water and that there would be no sneaking chlorinated chicken into our food chain. I am sure he will reaffirm that today.
The first SI today is the Materials and Articles in Contact with Food (Amendment) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019. As consumers, we are all familiar with the plastic packaging around almost every product—I suppose we are moving on to environmental policies in talking about the waste element of this, but the issue is at the forefront of consumer consciousness. Has the Minister had any conversations with his colleagues at DEFRA about the UK’s commitment to reducing plastic waste and about how this SI could help facilitate that? The authorised list of substances permitted for use in food contact plastics is generally updated several times a year. Which body will now undertake that work, and does it have sufficient resources to do so? Will the updated list be in line with that of our European neighbours?
Moving on to the genetically modified food and feed regulations, all authorised genetically modified food and feed must have a method of detection scientifically assessed and validated by the European Union laboratory, in collaboration with the European network of GMO—genetically modified organism—laboratories. What body will now scientifically assess and validate food and feed? Will the assessment process change, and will businesses have to complete a more complex process than currently? Will the UK be part of the European network of GMO laboratories after we leave the EU? If not, will the UK’s validation of GM food and feed be aligned with European network standards to ensure that GM food and feed from the EU can be placed on the UK market after Brexit and vice versa?
Can the Minister assure the House that GM food and feed will be authorised for sale only if they are judged not to present a risk to health, not to mislead consumers and not to have less nutritional value than their non-GM counterparts? Has he made any assessment of the impact that this SI may have on businesses? Has the Department contacted the food and feed industry to notify it of the changes in this SI?
Moving on to what is perhaps the most interesting of the SIs, on the regulation of novel foods, I was surprised to learn that chia seeds are classed as a novel food by the EU. I am sure I eat some of them; I have some in the cupboard—I think you sprinkle them on breakfast cereal and other things to try to get their goodness into you. Lots of other new products that I had not realised were classed as novel foods are now entering the market. I am pleased that foods that are new to the market are not automatically assumed to be safe. Novel foods must have a pre-market safety assessment before being placed on the market.
The geographical scope of the existing regulations is being maintained so that food that had a history of consumption in member states of the EU, and that could therefore be marketed in the EU without needing to be authorised, will not become novel and require authorisation to be sold in the UK when we leave. However, when we do leave the EU and new foods are added to the EU’s novel food list, will the UK mirror the same list and authorisation, or will it conduct its own review and authorisation? If the UK conducts its own review, which body will do it? Will the EU’s assessment be taken into account when we conduct a UK-only assessment? Public safety is paramount in all of this, as the Minister and I have discussed many times, so it is important that any reviewing body has the funding and resources to conduct a review. Can the Minister confirm that that is indeed the case?
Will a list of novel foods be available in the UK? Consumers are becoming more and more conscious about what is in the foods they eat, and rightly so. Any list must therefore detail all the information taken into account during the assessment so that consumers can make their own decisions. Packaging must also be clearly labelled with information about novel foods to ensure consumers are aware that their food is safe. It is of course highly important that any food entering the UK market for the first time is safe for human consumption. Leaving the EU should not mean a reduction in our food health standards.
Finally, the anomaly among these SIs, if we did not think that novel food was an anomaly, is the animal feed regulations—I suppose the Minister and I are discussing them because we are the Health Minister and the shadow Health Minister. This SI focuses on animal health and welfare, while taking into account the impact that that can have on human health—that is probably why it has fallen to the Minister and myself to debate it.
The SI says that all rules will remain the same as at present and that there will be a smooth transition for businesses, the feed sector and consumers. The elements of the instrument addressing deficiencies in the Animal Feed (Composition, Marketing and Use) (England) Regulations 2015 apply only in England. What discussions has the Minister had with his counterparts in the devolved Administrations? Is he confident that any regulations on animal feed will be similar, if not the same?
Any animal feed on the market, or used, anywhere in the UK must be safe. The conditions set out for labelling, packaging, sampling, analysis and hygiene must also meet a high standard to protect animal health and wellbeing. Animal feed must also be tested to ensure that it is not harmful to humans in the food chain.
Finally, any changes as a result of this SI must be effectively communicated to the agencies affected in a timely manner. With what could be as few as 10 days to go until Brexit day, will the Minister please confirm that he has had conversations with such agencies to notify them of any changes? The regulations must also be able to be amended easily in the event of emerging threats or changes in safety standards.
In closing, I would like to put on record once again that I am disappointed and concerned that it has come to this just 10 days—if nothing changes—before we are due to leave the EU and that we are still tying up loose ends in such legislation, which is so important to our food safety. We cannot let food safety standards slip as a result of Brexit. They are crucial to human and animal health, safety and welfare. That is why, although I am concerned about the way the Government are rushing through important legislation such as this, I none the less support these SIs. The UK’s food safety standards are paramount to our health and something we must not compromise on. With those remarks, I look forward to the Minister’s response. As ever, I hope he is able to answer some of my questions.
It is absolutely crucial that the Government take seriously the protection of public health in respect of food. We pride ourselves on our high standards of food production. As I mentioned earlier to the Minister, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs made a commitment that we would in no way do anything to undermine or lower our standards as we exit the EU. I think a great many of us in the Chamber will be holding his feet to the fire on that commitment. Indeed, not only would we like to keep the standards that we have, but we may want to strengthen them. As my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton) said, we may want to address packaging in a different way, for example, and we have an opportunity to do so.
I support the approval of these statutory regulations, remembering that they relate not just to the food that we eat, but to imported feed—the soya, the grain and the other myriad crops—for the animals that turn into our meat. The regulations must be in place on day one after we leave the EU, because it is important that businesses can just carry on working. I have met several people from the agricultural supply trade, and they have stressed that point to me, because they want to carry on with business as usual. I was therefore pleased to hear from the Minister that businesses are backing these regulations.
The draft Novel Food (Amendment) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019 deals with interesting foods such as chia seeds, which I have on my porridge every morning. They are supposed to be a superfood, so I thought that they may do me some good. They are new to the market and, like all novel foods, they had to undergo a pre-market safety check. I am pleased that the regulations mean that we will adopt the whole system that applies to novel foods, which is important for public health and safeguarding. New products must undergo an assessment of the level of risk and then an assessment of how to manage that risk and, quite rightly, we are adopting the tried and tested methods of the EU. They seem to be working so far because nothing untoward has happened to me as a result of eating chia seeds, and I hope that nothing will. It is important to continue to follow the process and to ensure that we keep the labelling and packaging right so that people know about novel foods.
I shall now turn quickly to the draft Genetically Modified Food and Feed (Amendment etc.) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019. It is essential that the system for GM food and animal feed is transparent and well regulated and that it involves a trusted safety evaluation based on sound science. We must adhere to a strict practice, and the EU has an established method, so I am pleased that we are adopting it. It is important to ensure that any process also applies to imports, because we do not want our industry to be undermined by any other country with lower GM standards, something that has been highlighted to me by several people when it comes to soya, for example. We must also ensure that the tracking and labelling systems are in place for GM products.
While we are adopting EU measures lock, stock and barrel, should the EU make any changes to its regulations, we should examine them and consider whether we want to adopt them and whether we may want to add some other standards. If we do that, we should use a bona fide method that protects our consumers while enabling the worldwide trade in which we want to engage.
I assume that the draft regulations will dovetail perfectly with the ambitions in the Agriculture Bill, which sets out plans for a completely new and exciting rethink of land-use policy and for delivering public goods for public benefit. While food is not specifically listed as public good, it is part and parcel of the Bill, and ensuring that we have high standards will be part of all that, so I would like some assurances from the Minister. One thing is for sure: we cannot mess around with food safety. Consumer safety is of utmost importance, and it is beholden on us to put measures in place to ensure that it is properly addressed as we exit the EU. I welcome the approval of these statutory instruments.
Many myths were spoken about leaving the EU, but one of the biggest was that it was a means of cutting bureaucracy. In fact, as is becoming obvious by the mess that this place has gotten itself into, we have been lucky over the past few decades that so much red tape has been efficiently managed from Brussels. Access to collective European bodies such as the European Food Safety Authority—expert scientists who independently research and advise and ensure that food standards legislation is fit for purpose—will be sorely missed. We must co-operate with national agencies like Food Standards Scotland, which has been a driving force for public health improvements. However, here we are in the midst of a Brexit bourach. As the damaging deal remains stuck in the mud, we have a torrent of statutory instruments to process simply to get to the starting block.
Existing protections and permissions over food contact materials must continue post- Brexit. No one wants a fall in the standards for containers transporting our food or the machinery processing our food, or for packaging, kitchenware, tableware and so forth—standards that successive UK Governments have contributed towards creating. The same applies, of course, to food standards, and my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk (John Mc Nally) will be speaking more about the draft Genetically Modified Food and Feed (Amendment etc.) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019.
It is vital that evidence-led food safety and food standards are not diminished or diluted by Brexit, which is important for our future trade with the EU as well as for public health. Any increased auditing of food safety standards and procedures at the borders will take a heavy toll on a sector that is already facing enough challenges from Brexit. Looming trade tariffs on agricultural products could close export markets and put thousands out of jobs and close hundreds of businesses. The loss of the European workforce that keeps everything flowing—pickers and packers, food processors, haulage drivers and vets—will also be a substantial blow. There is a threat to Scotland’s carefully cultivated brand identity and our protected geographical indicators. Brexit threatens all of it.
The EU accounts for 70% of annual Scottish food exports, so the possible damage is incredibly worrying, with the industry warning that a no-deal Brexit would cost £2 billion a year. The Government’s own analysis shows that the effect of crashing out of Europe on the agriculture, forestry and fishing industries would hit Scotland hardest—twice as hard as England—slashing the economy by 8%. No Government should contemplate such a self-destructive move, but the Secretary of State for Scotland sat on his hands while his Tory colleagues toyed with the no-deal catastrophe button. We cannot allow Scotland’s successful food and drinks sector to be hijacked by Brexiteers and those who enable them for party political purposes. Exports of iconic Scottish produce, such as whisky, beef, langoustines and salmon, are worth four times as much to the Scottish economy as they are to the UK’s, and seven of the top 10 food export destinations are EU countries.
We are here today to debate the replacements for legislation that we already have because of some xenophobic fear of the EU, but we still do not have cast-iron guarantees about the long-term protection of our food standards in international trade negotiations. Billions of pounds that should be spent on tackling the problems that people face the length and breadth of these islands is being wasted on Brexit bureaucracy, and countless hours of MPs’ time are being wasted replacing legislation that we already had with near-identical legislation. Kafka never came close.
I rise in support of all four statutory instruments. While this House, in its wisdom, has decided to send our Prime Minister on her hands and knees to beg for an extension to our leaving the European Union, we do not yet know what the EU’s counter-offer will be or whether the terms of that extension will be palatable and acceptable to the House. It therefore remains imperative that we continue to ensure that we have an operable lawbook for day one should we still be required to leave at the end of this month without an agreement.
The vast majority of the provisions in all the statutory instruments relate to the transfer of functions, principally from the European Commission to the food safety authority, which means Food Standards Scotland or the Food Standards Agency in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, or in other instances to the appropriate authority, which largely means the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
There is something of an irony in our having a debate on the Floor of the House about whether, in all these statutory instruments, it is acceptable to replace “Commission” with “Food Safety Authority”, yet the original powers to which every one of these statutory instruments relates were imposed on us directly by the European Union, typically through implementing Acts or delegated Acts. There would have been little or no scrutiny in this House, and probably the best that could have been expected is a letter to the European Scrutiny Committee or, in some instances, the tabling of an explanatory memorandum before Parliament. The truth is that the most pernicious Henry VIII power we have seen in this country in modern times is section 2(2) of the European Communities Act 1972, which has led to widespread changes in primary legislation.
Today I will focus on a specific point that is relevant to all four statutory instruments, which is the respective roles of the Food Standards Agency, on the one hand, and Ministers, on the other. The hon. Members for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) and for Stroud (Dr Drew) both mentioned the role of DEFRA, as the Department in which much of the technical expertise rests. Having experienced it for five and a half years as a Minister, there is something of an issue around our current food standards architecture in this country.
The Food Standards Agency was established in the wake of the BSE crisis, and it was made independent in a very special way, through statute, to be entirely insulated from the Government and Ministers. Although the Department of Health and Social Care is its sponsoring Department, Health Ministers seldom show direct policy interest in the FSA’s decisions, rightly recognising that it was established to be entirely independent.
However, there is an issue in how the FSA was set up, because the events that preceded its formation mean that, first, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and, latterly, DEFRA have been more divorced from its work than they ought to have been, as DEFRA is the Whitehall Department with the vast majority of technical and policy knowledge in this area.
I have always had very good relations with Heather Hancock, the chair of the FSA. However, I have always sensed that the FSA board, collectively, is sometimes prone to being somewhat supercilious in its denial of the expertise in DEFRA and, worse, is prone to making rather unfair assumptions about DEFRA’s motives in advancing issues or concerns on particular policy fronts. That is, of course, until something goes wrong.
In 2013, when we faced the horsemeat scandal, Health Ministers did not want to get involved, the FSA sat on its hands and it was left to the then Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my right hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson), to step into the breach. DEFRA took control of the crisis and took ownership of events by setting up a review of food crime and crafting a policy that resulted in a new food crime unit.
When these regulations were originally considered, some on the FSA board sought significantly to extend the FSA’s powers by taking direct decision-making responsibility in some of these areas, which would have gone a long way beyond its current remit. The Minister’s predecessor and I resisted that approach, and I am pleased to see that the approach we recommended is reflected in all these statutory instruments. We proposed, first, that the FSA should give independent advice to Ministers and that that advice should be public for all to see. Secondly, we recommended that Ministers should have regard to that advice. Thirdly, we recommended that if Ministers choose not to follow the advice, they should have to publish their reasons for not doing so. Those points are reflected variously in regulation 17 of the animal feed regulations, regulation 23 of the novel food regulations and regulation 23 of the genetically modified food and feed regulations.
This is important because, as a holding pattern, we need to ensure there is a presumption for following the advice of the Food Standards Agency. Until we have established a long-term settlement on which decisions should be taken independently by the FSA and which decisions should be taken by Ministers, subject to clear advice from the FSA, this sensible holding pattern makes absolute sense.
In the longer term, although I would not do anything to undermine the independence of the FSA—it was set up in the way it was for good reason—there is a case for trying to increase some of its democratic accountability, and there may be things we could learn, for instance, from the model we have for the Health and Safety Executive. It has now been several decades since the BSE crisis, and it is perhaps time to consider what the food safety architecture should look like, but that is a debate for another time. I fully support all four of these statutory instruments.
Regardless of my party’s opposition, in principle and in entirety, to the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, I recognise that it is crucial that statutory instruments are enacted to preserve a framework around the status quo. That framework will be essential to our future trading relationships with the EU and the rest of the world.
Scotland’s booming food and drinks industrysupports 119,000 jobs and exports £6 billion-worth of produce, 40% of which goes to our European neighbours. Consumers and farmers remain sceptical about the need for GM crops, and allowing GM crops in Scotland would threaten our country’s international reputation as a clean, green food and drink producer.
The Scottish Government remain totally committed to opting out of allowing the cultivation of GM crops, thereby giving policy certainty to producers and investors, in stark contrast to the uncertainty and paralysis of the UK Government. Public concern about hormone-tainted meat and chlorine-washed chicken demonstrates how critical food standards will be post-Brexit, both at home and abroad. In my hometown of Denny, which is in my Falkirk constituency, we ha